Bonfires in the Rain
Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1991, $27.95
In outline, the story Lauris Edmond has to tell in this, her second volume of autobiography, would be typical of many New Zealand women who married about the time of World War Two. At first there is the ‘pervasive satisfaction of having achieved the married state ‑ and status ‑ that every girl unconsciously desired’, followed by the ‘personal miracle’ of giving birth to ‘the most beautiful baby in the world’. More children arrive and there begins a decade of ‘coping’, of absorption in creating and managing the expanding family unit. Good at his work, her husband starts to become obsessed by it; for his wife, ‘my daily work (and long, busy days they were) … and the largest part of my inner life … was simply, my children’.
The strains of increasing separateness within an ageing marriage are exacerbated by three promotion moves. Her husband acquires ever-greater responsibilities; her children grow up and take on their own directions. Suddenly realising that ‘I didn’t exist, except as I helped them to exist’, she resumes her interrupted university studies extra-murally and discovers ‘a carnival of new views’. More than ever, her husband demands her loyalty and unquestioning support; all she can offer him in return is hurt and increasing disappointment as she seeks action, experiment and challenge for herself, elsewhere and on her own. The shell of the ruined marriage is preserved but within, in pain and puzzlement, the family is disintegrating.
The circumstances of individual lives are unique, of course. In Lauris Edmond’s case a major determinant is the fiercely competitive hierarchy of the secondary school system. Its ‘random choreography’ takes the Edmond family from the frontier outpost of Ohakune to the charming, complacent village of Greytown, to the crabbed ill-tempered ‘occupational obstacle’ of Huntly and finally back to Wellington. Each place exerts its own influence, but everywhere Lauris’s gift for friendship finds unlikely but congenial and stimulating company.
There is also the continuing common life of her close Scott family: the fascination of what happens to them all and the developing understanding of her still-intense relationship with her extraordinary mother. Even more important, there is the life of her own evolving family, unique in the interactions of six able children, all lovingly described.
Through it all there is Lauris’s desire to be a writer. At first, when she has only one baby, there are fragments put down in ‘small islands of time’. Then, as family demands multiply, nothing: ‘… soon I would be forty. And I was not, so far, a writer of poems and stories, a known recorder of New Zealand experience; instead I was a mother of six children, a woman who had taken up the familiar pattern of my generation’. As domestic unhappiness intensifies and, conversely, intellectual journeys expand, so writing poetry ‑ ‘for the first time with absolute seriousness’ ‑becomes an urgent occupation: ‘to hell with it, this is what I want to do’. And she does, with increasing confidence and success. Denis Glover encourages her to put together a collection, In Middle Air; the book closes with the launching of this and of her next journey ‑ ‘my own writing’.
If the story so far has been typical of a generation, in kind though not in degree, the telling of it is exceptional. Poets are accustomed to exploring emotion, to cutting beneath the surface of experience to discover the underlying truth, and to expressing what they find in public and in the most telling language possible. Only a poet could have written this book.
Her first volume of autobiography, Hot October, relied mainly on representing letters and diaries. Thus it had the impetus and immediacy of a student seeing exciting new horizons, but also the inconsequentiality: one sometimes tired of its immaturity and lack of reflection. Not so with this volume. Lauris Edmond does not spare herself in recalling the bad things as well as the good, and the fierce emotions they aroused. It must have been extraordinarily hard to write parts of this book, needing huge reserves of courage and determination. Whatever it cost her is justified by the results. The book is considered and fair, unflinching yet without rancour. Moreover, it weighs up not just particular people and their relationships but the forces of society at work upon them, showing how the course of individual lives is determined by the currents of the times. Intensely personal though it is, Bonfires in the Rain documents middle-class New Zealand attitudes and mores from the mid-40s to the mid-70s.
Autobiography is by nature a prose form, but this volume has the hallmarks of Edmond’s poetry: a richly detailed surface but diving deep; pointed yet flowing. Time and again complex ideas are illuminated by the natural use of metaphor: ‘My own family now filled every part of me; like a full tide it had come in, spread over and through me, widened me into shapes I had not known I could take’. The first half of the book, filled with the physical rawness and human warmth of Ohakune and with the pleasures and pains of young children, is a delight: cheerful, affectionate, wry. Lauris Edmond is now an internationally known recorder of New Zealand experience. This penetrating narrative, with its grace, clarity, sensitivity and stark honesty, is the equal of her finest poems. We are immeasurably in her debt.
Andrew Mason is a free-lance editor in Wellington.