Skewed unforgettable normalities, Catharina van Bohemen

At the End of Darwin Road – A Memoir 
Fiona Kidman
Vintage, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869419448

Muck: A Memoir
Craig Sherborne
Victoria University Press, $30.00, 
ISBN 9780864735683

Digging for Spain: A Writer’s Journey
Penelope Todd
Longacre Press, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877361968

“The past,” says Phillip Lopate in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, “is an Aladdin’s lamp which the essayist never tires of rubbing.” The same might be said of the memoirist – the burnishing of the lamp and polished arrangement of a life glowing in a way which autobiography, with its stricter adherence to chronology and fact, may not permit. But why the endless desire, not only to write a personal story, but also to read it? Jill Ker Conway in When Memory Speaks describes autobiography as “the most popular form of fiction among readers today”. “Tell me a story” is as powerful in adult life as it was when we first begged our parents for a tale before bed. The memoirist’s magic is an ability to blend egotism with an honesty which invites the reader to trust and share: we read to know we’re not alone. For each of these memoirs, place is their writers’ Aladdin’s lamp. Menton catapults Fiona Kidman to Keri Keri, to the house at the end of Darwin Road, and the unfurling of a long life, Taonga is the mischievously named farm where Craig Sherborne describes a ghoulish adolescent year in Muck, and Penelope Todd’s Digging For Spain is superficially a month at a writers’ community in Spain, but is really a deeply personal, almost archaeological excavation.

The publication of the first volume of Fiona Kidman’s memoir is significant. She has been writing for over 45 years: more than 20 books of novels, poetry and non-fiction. She has been a librarian, member of PEN, the Arts Board of Creative New Zealand, and the New Zealand Book Council, a radio producer, teacher of writing, a wife and mother. In 1998, in recognition of her contribution to the literary life of New Zealand, she was made Dame Commander of the NZ Order of Merit. We cannot talk about writing in New Zealand without acknowledging her.

In her introduction to At the End of Darwin Road, she explains that physical distance – she held the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in 2006 – allowed her to examine her 45-year writing life: “to see myself more as a character, and more importantly perhaps, to see others as characters.” Exploration of her life owes much to Marguerite Duras who wrote that the act of writing was in fact a “deciphering” of something you have done in the “sleep of your life” and “Mansfield delivered me into a landscape drenched in one of the most central sensory perceptions of my childhood: the scent of oranges.” She anticipates the “truth” question in the preface – “At heart I remain a novelist” – but she accords family members and friends who people her life the same care she takes in the creation of fictional characters (“hearing the voices of the past reaching out to me”).

Her writing is candid and encompassing. She describes her Scottish forbears and her parents’ difficult and poverty-marred life with unsentimental affection, locating them within the social context of their time and providing diverting accounts of the make-up of the curious settlers of Keri Keri (class-conscious British expatriates from China) and Waipu descendants of the forceful Presbyterian minister Norman McLeod. She is unflinching about the hard parts: depression, too much drinking, the misery of sunless houses, a sense of not belonging, but this is balanced by the joy of a long and sustaining marriage, friendship, notably the complex but deep friendship with Lauris Edmond, and the plait of her first baby’s birth with a surge of writing: “It was as if the new creation within me was transformed into another creation beyond.” She weaves extracts from her novels into her memoir, illustrating the writer’s ability to transform the quotidian into fiction. Her frequent journeys and delight in landscape find expression in several characters’ consciousness:

Jessie sat in an olive and mustard coloured Road Services bus as it trundled through rolling plains, then the wasteland of desert space in the centre of the island, the starry tussock glinting under an erratic sun, the mountains leaning towards her from the west.

 

Kidman’s accessible prose and the way she shows (mainly) women grappling to escape from restricting social pressures has guaranteed her a permanent position in our fiction. Sharon Crosbie spoke for many on the publication of A Breed of Women: “Darlings I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for. This book is about us. We’re all in it.” The memoir ends with the publication of this novel, and is an eloquent portrayal of time passing and the acceptance that the place you start from shifts, alters: “I had found the end of Darwin Road, but it was not the end I expected, or where I thought I would find it.”

Craig Sherborne is a poet and a journalist with the Herald Sun, and Muck is a sequel to Hoi Polloi, the first volume of growing up in New Zealand and Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Raimond Gaita pronounced Hoi Polloi a “masterpiece” when it was published in 2005, and Muck is its sizzling successor. Sherborne shakes the life of a solitary boy growing up in New Zealand, milking cows, training horses, and attending boarding-school in Sydney, into a grotesque kaleidoscope in which his and his parents’ energetic foibles make us weep and wince. His mother is fearsome with an inexhaustible insensitivity and a flaring temper. He calls her Feet because since returning reluctantly to Taonga in New Zealand where “rain falls on a string”, her feet, once encased in Sydney stilettos, have deteriorated, have become “exposed with their yellowings”. His father, known as Winks in Hoi-Polloi, is now the Duke because the farm represents his parents’ dynastic desires: “All men should own a farm and … stand with an arm around their son and stare out across their manor, like the duke of all they see.” His parents need their son; they probably love him, but they rarely understand him. What makes the narrative searing is the boy’s ability to expose his parents’ (and his) vulnerability: “I would never normally allow this physical move to be made on me, my shoulders embraced by him in a mother-like or love-like way …. A father should be a stone figure, twin of myself in looks and gesture.”

Master Muck’s voice is as defiant as the God Boy’s, although he cares terribly about the world he’s emerging into. He rarely gets it right. But all the poor boy is trying to do is find his voice. His narrative voice is a fusion of adult phrases, he sings but he copies – Elvis or Nat King Cole. In the school musical he’s cast as Holden Caulfield – “about a boy who’s in search of how to become he”. “You two are perfect for each other,” says the singing teacher. “Let us start that search for your you voice.”

What distinguishes this memoir from the other two under review is that the facts of Sherborne’s life swell into a kind of heart-breaking satire that has a novelistic truth in which he and his family become larger than themselves as they cope with catastrophes which almost overwhelm but intead wobble to precarious resolution. He sings, not on stage but to the cows – his favourite dies, and his father who nearly dies, in fact has kidney stones. “We’re back to normal,” says Feet, thirsty for a “victory champers” and inviting young Muck to come “under her wing”. A skewed unforgettable normality.

Penelope Todd’s Digging for Spain is meditative and confessional. A writer of highly regarded novels for young adults, at midlife “the house of the self began to creak”. Twitching and giddiness alerted Todd: “Somebody living under my skin was trying to get out.” It can be discomforting reading about someone’s midlife crisis – exposure and revelation can be maudlin. But at no point in this reflective, courageously written memoir did I want to stop reading. Todd’s journey to Spain for a month is the culmination of a process of transformation occurring over several years.

There were several upheavals. The first, and very distressing, was dissatisfaction with God, who, she concluded, had actually come “between” her and life. Scrutiny of her marriage followed: a sense that she was not, had never been “entirely present to man or child”. Definition as writer – not “just” about teenage girls – became another struggle. As yet, Todd still believes that the “freedom of adolescent scenarios” ignites her more than “purely adult’s view drama”. Finally, the cataclysm of falling in love – possibly with the elusively named, email-sending “Art”. Her husband is R, and while it must have been extremely painful to write about the splintering of a long marriage, there is also no doubt that R is Todd’s “home base, after all”.

Poetry – Rumi, Roethke – offer solace and illumination. A weekend retreat with Joy Cowley forces her to “come out of hiding and give up the habit of withholding”. Thus Penny (“brown and obsolete as an old coin”) becomes Penelope and aligns her with Penelope the weaver whose skill kept the suitors away. She eventually achieves her own room, shared with a pregnant spider – her closely observed descriptions of insects reminded me of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm – and she draws her own web on a wall to remind her that writing is to her what web-making is to the spider. Rituals, recording dreams, regular visits to a Jungian analyst – these things propel her to Spain which represents connection – not just with place, but with herself. The writers’ community generates friendship and discovery – the Black Madonna, the hills around Montserrat: Todd is an observant and responsive walker. Ultimately, however, Digging for Spain is about returning, not just to home, but to self: “I am the person I always was … the alteration is in the way I see … I’ve learned to pay attention, to carry my life in both hands.”

 

Catharina van Bohemen is a Wellington reviewer.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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