No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson

ARTS, Books

There is so much to like about the intent of this biography of Bill Pearson, a once prominent New Zealand writer, author of the essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’, the novel Coal Flat, and later a respected academic. Pearson’s fear that his homosexuality would be publicly exposed to his detriment was one of the major reasons he essentially “made himself invisible”. A man shrouded in obscurity, the goal of No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson (AUP, NZ$59.95), is to lift that mist.

The author, Paul Millar, is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury and author/editor of many books on New Zealand literature, and here he sets out to shine a light on Pearson’s life. There are questions to be answered—as the inner cover says “Why did a man who had only ever wanted to produce fiction cease writing abruptly after one novel?” but also, what compelled Pearson to write his novel in the first place? Unfortunately, Pearson’s story of his writing life is lost amongst the vast detail Millar packs into his biography. While the amount of research he presents is impressive, there is too much and it swamps the crucial currents of the book. If focal points and accompanying detail had been more carefully selected based on relevance to the ‘story’ and keeping the intended audience in mind, the writing would have been stronger, more lively and engaging.

With limited exposure before now it is unlikely that many New Zealanders will pick up a large book on an author they may have never heard of. If they do I am uncertain they will persist through the lengthy year-by-year construction of Pearson’s ancestry, childhood and school years to the more insightful and engaging sections. These later chapters are a highlight of the book, and they outline Pearson’s relationships with other writers and the literary community, his personal involvement with Maori through his work at Auckland University, public reception of his creative work, his academic contributions and the constraints his sexuality placed on these pursuits. The most likely audience for this biography will be people already aware of Pearson’s contributions, or those with historical or academic interests, which is a shame as the commendable aspiration of enlightening a wider public on Pearson’s story will in the end not be met.

The reader here must pull essential strands of Pearson and his life out from the cloudy text and collate the pieces themselves. Pearson comes across as an interesting and admirable figure, with his perseverance and self-belief in the quality of his work despite his social fears and anxieties. A kind and generous man and mentor, he revelled in a sense of family and belonging in those he found around him—writing friends, work colleagues, and the local Maori community. While at times being ‘blinded’ by his emotional ties to his own creative work, Pearson’s desire for fairness and an environment where fear is not a controlling force both socially and in literary circles, is one of the many admirable qualities of the man to make it to the surface of this biography.