This review first appeared in the Otago Daily Times, 16th March 2019.
This review first appeared in the Otago Daily Times, 16th March 2019.
‘At the End of Darwin Road’ is a beautiful, must-read memoir from one of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s most treasured writers and taonga, Dame Fiona Kidman. This is the story of her early life, tracing a line from the scented orange groves and their property at the end of Darwin Road in Kerikeri, to similarly-scented Menton in France, where she writes the book in 2006, whilst on the Katherine Mansfield residency (and where she accidentally remarries her divine husband Ian, but that’s another story!).
The present influences the past, weaving together the Kidman’s changing silhouettes over the years. From the ‘funny little thing’ she was as a child (not helped by her affinity for water divination, and an imaginery husband called Eric. McKay), through to her teenage years at Northland College, and then her burgeoning writing career, and becoming a feminist of sorts. As the book, and her life, progresses, we witness Kidman embracing her difference, as she comes to understand who she is, and the power of her words.
Kidman reflects stoicly on being bullied by the headmaster’s ‘big boys’:
I wanted to be a famous writer, and I was getting my frist real taste of the critics. – page 58.
She buys Pride and Prejudice with her cow milking money and so begins a Victorian literary fascination, often with the outsiders like Becky Sharp and Lydia Bennet. She was an advanced reader and would often came across adult content she didn’t understand, or know what to do with. She asks herself often whether she is a decent girl, and in fact what is a decent girl? Her decency came into question in tandem with her understanding of the power of the written word, with her love note to Eric (not to be mistaken with her imagineray husband, Eric McKay): ‘I still like you. Do you like me?’ She got in all sorts of trouble for that one: ‘I thought you were a decent girl,’ said the headmaster.
Kidman is damn funny, and is able to laugh at herself: at her weirdness, her ill-chosen dresses and hats, her power with words. She is also brilliant at describing place, especially her life-long fascination with those early Kerikeri years:
For my father it was a place where things might have gone well but for a little more luck here and there. For my mother it was a nightmare of servility and poverty. And for me, it remained a place where the exotic was mingled with solitariness and a fractured family life. A place where I had felt damaged. Some nights, when I lay awake, I would see the sunlight, sticky summer paspalum grass, ripe pendulous fruits hanging in the hedgerows in the heat. And oranges, glimmering among their jade-green castles of leaves. I often slept restlessly or not much at all. A dark corner would turn over at the edge of the picture. I could never quite lift it. – page 241.
I also enjoyed how we’re let into the secret real life seeds that grew her best-loved fictional work. The writer’s dilemma, she writes, when drawing on life, is what to put in and what to leave out, and what to invent.
Mandarin Summer is essentially a work of fiction, and so are most of the characters, but I have long ago given up the pretence that Constance and Luke Freeman are not based on my parents, nor Emily on myself. – page 30.
It is a story of friendship and love, too, with some poignant accounts of her relationships, including the tragic loss of two of her dearest friends, which had me in tears. And, her husband Ian, and their great love, casts a dappled light over the pages. She knew the minute he walked into the library that they’d marry. In Menton she writes:
I watched Ian turning into Montée du Lutetia, the steep little street where we live. He half raised on laden arm in salute, as he walked towards me. This is the story of my life—Ian walking towards me, never away. There were times when he might have. I don’t know whether anyone else would have stayed.
Memory can be difficult sometimes. – Page 228.
It’s also an enjoyable romp through New Zealand’s literary history, with appearances by Witi Ihamaera, Patricia Grace, Ian Cross, Michael King, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt, Lauris Edmond, Bill Manhire, Robin Dudding, Allen Curnow, and many more. There’s a scene in a bedroom with Sam Hunt that gets Kidman into all sorts of trouble…it’s not quite what you think, but I’ll say no more!
This is such a gorgeous book. Reading it is like sitting down for coffee with a dear friend.
MORE FAV QUOTES:
On leaving her ‘enchanted life’ in Morrinsville for Kerikeri:
All my life I will be shaped by that separation, and the journey to the north, taken in a slow train, in the company of my mother. – page 31.
Fascination with Kerikeri, as one does with the place where one is formed.
The morning her first children, Joanna, was born:
But there I was, a mother and a writer. It was my twenty-third birthday. – page 118
When all the babies except one had been given out, a nurse wandered over with a puzzled look on her face. ‘I’ve got one Māori baby left over,’ she said.
The baby was mine. I couldn’t have been more proud of her. – Page 118.
When I sat down to write Mandarin Summer, it was time to draw on this stored material about the North that I had carried around in my head for more than twenty years. – page 218.
Besides, I couldn’t leaeve the North alone. – page 241.
I don’t regret most of them, but I think there are times when it’s worth taking stock and asking yourself if you are achieving anything useful. Writing and committees don’t always go together. – page 164.
THE END by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Harvill Secker 2018 (originally published 2011)
Linda has stars inside her, and when they shine, she shines, but when they don’t the night is pitch black.
– page 1025.
At Auckland University in May 2018, Knausgaard warned our small group that that this book was different. That ‘The End’ returned to the beginning, circling back around to question the very decision he’d made to publish in the first place. Had he done the right thing? Were his memories correct? What did he owe his uncle Gunnar, if anything? (And no, he did not mention the 300-odd pages of Nazism essay in the middle…).
For crying out loud.
What a fucking mess.
How the hell could I ever have put myself in such a spot? What was I trying to do? Why couldn’t I keep all the badness to myself like other people did? But no, I had to go and shove it in everyone’s face, and drag others down with me in the fall.
A fittingly dazzling end to the series, despite—and I have to admit it—I skim-read most of the Nazism essay. I understand why he included it, but it felt to me like a major detour, and I just wanted to get back to Linda, Vanja, Heidi and John. That’s where the magic lay for me.
I particularly enjoyed the way, once again, he so realistically juxtaposes the every day motions of life against the backing track of inner turmoil. Smoking a cigarette—thinking of Gunnar. Drinking coffee from that vacuum jug—thinking of Gunnar. Dropping the kids at nursery—thinking of Gunnar. He captures the nagging fear and shame of someone’s criticism and dislike, an earworm nagging at every layer of consciousness. It has the effect of slipping the writer and the reader away from the exterior and into the interior, each side alternatively amplified then fading out.
Other pulsing veins throughout the book are that he still felt the fear of his father, like an after-taste, despite his father being dead many years. Also, the intriguing gap he feels between himself and life:
One of the many things she [Linda] criticises me for is that I don’t see her. This is not quite true, I do see her, the problem is that I see her more or less in the way you see a room you know well; everything is there, the lamp and the carpet and the bookcase, the sofa and the window and the floor, but somehow transparently, no mark is left on your mind.
Why do I organise my life like this? What do I want with this neutrality? Obviously it is to eliminate as much resistance as possible, to make the days slip past as easily and unobtrusively as possible. But why? Isn’t that synonymous with wanting to live as little as possible? With telling life to leave me in peace so that I can …yes, well, what? Read? Oh, but come on, what do I read about, if not life? Write? Same thing. I read and write about life. The only thing I don’t want life for is to live it.
And again, on page 213, he writes of the necessary distance between him and his children. He doesn’t explain why – “an element of enduring . . . of holding out, the opposite of letting go and living.”
I wonder if this is something most writers feel?
I felt at times uncomfortable with his detailed description of Linda’s illness and mental decline. Obviously it was Knausgaard’s story too, it affected him greatly, but it somehow seemed too much, cruel even, to reveal his wife’s weakness in this way. But this, we all know, is Knausgaard’s style, and where the magic lies.
Despite skim-reading much of the Nazism essay, I understand the point he makes, and was blown away by the dark and urgent question he asks of us:
Decent humans distanced themselves from all of this, but they were few, and this fact demands our consideration, for who are we going to be when our decency is put to the test? Will we have the courage to speak against what everyone else believes, our friends, neighbours and colleagues, to insist that we are decent and they are not? Great is the power of the weak, almost inescapable its bonds, and the only thing we can really do is to hope our we is a good we. Because if evil comes it will not come as ‘they’, in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as ‘we’. It will come as what is right.
Woven throughout the novel are his considerations of, and questions about literature—what it is and its purpose:
And writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which it never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than everyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed. Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?
From a literary perspective, mercy lay in beauty, which is to say in the beautiful sentence, and in the creative manifestation, the fictionalisation, the secret alliance of events that criss-crossed any novel, because this criss-crossing in itself was an affirmation of meaning and cohesion.
. . . on the contrary, literature’s entire system is based on the reader submitting to the work and vanishing within it.
Other favourite quotes:
Page 15: on death:
Everyone’s life contained a horizon, the horizon of death, and it lay somewhere between the second and third generations before us, and the second and third generations after us. We, and those we lived with and loved, existed between those two lines. Outside were the others, the dead and the as yet unborn. There, life was a chasm without us.
Page 243: on friendship and love:
Geir gave me the chance to look at life and understand it, Linda gave me the chance to live it. In the first instance I became visible to myself, in the second I vanished. That’s the difference between friendship and love. That the two things came into my life simultaneously meant for a while everything was turned upside down, all of a sudden, almost from one day to the next. I found myself plunged into something completely new. Everything was wide open, nothing was impossible any more. And in the sky, I that fantastic summer of 2002, the sun shone, sinking red into the Mälardalen every night, as if shrouded by a veil of blood, its last rays glittering gold on all the city’s towers and spires, and I was immortal.
Page 164: on the decision to publish:
In the years that followed, I willingly told anyone who cared to listen about dad and his demise, it made me special and perhaps interesting too, it made me into someone who had seen a few things, gave me a certain air of casual disregard and depth, something I’m sure I was trying to attain, I’d always carried that inside me, the desire to be someone, and that notion of elevation had always been a part of my motivation for writing. Holding forth in that way about my father and what became of him always left me with a bad taste in my mouth, because I was exploiting him and the tragedy of his life for my own ends. But that was small scale. The novel blew it all up and made a big thing out of it. I was exploiting him, yes, I was climbing on his corpse. And I was doing that simply by writing about it. At the same time it was the most important story in my life.
If you’ve a Knausgaard fan this is a must-read, but the weight of the central essay pulled the book down for me, so I give it four out of five stars.
When writing my recent memoir, I often asked myself: Where on the line do you stand between honoring the truth and capitulating to satisfy the terms of someone you love? What are you prepared to sacrifice in order to tell your story? Karl Ove Knausgaard answers these questions and more, in an intimate master class at the University of Auckland.
This article was originally published in NZ Author magazine, Issue 315, Spring 2018. Thanks to the NZSA and editor Tina Shaw.
Congratulations Mika, on the launch of your new book, I Have Loved Me a Man (Auckland University Press, 2018). Click here to buy.
After a week of judging dozens of paid writing residency applications for Aotearoa New Zealand’s national writers centre, Michael King Writers Centre (I’m on the board – sign up to our newsletter here: http://www.writerscentre.org.nz), I wanted to share my secret tips for putting together your next kick-ass application.
I had a recent stint of five weeks, knee-deep in a work contract, where I didn’t have (or make) time to work on my book.
And here’s what I discovered: the longer I stayed away, the harder it became to return. It started to feel impossible; that I’d never again be able to open the document and feel as though inside it. That feeling paired with a sense of loss, a heartache for the work. I wanted to write but no longer trusted I still “had it”, or knew what I was trying to say.
This occurred around the same time I was considering giving up cello lessons (I’m a complete beginner—I’ve been learning for 9 months and playing from Suzuki Cello Volume 2). My wonderful teacher sat me down, opened the first page of Volume 1 to the most simple of pieces. She told me to allow myself to return to the physicality of the experience.
‘Feel the cello between your knees,’ she said. ‘Feel the bow hair tugging against the strings. Breathe.’
Slowly, gently, I’ve reaquainted myself with my instrument and have returned to daily practice. It’s taking time to build confidence and technique again, so I’m still working on the simple pieces, finding enjoyment in the process.
The same day of the cello lesson I returned to my desk and, for the first time in five weeks, opened the manuscript. I stared at the words on the first page, then scrolled down and then up the entire document, black words on white pages flashing past. I swallowed, closed my eyes for a second. I couldn’t even remember where I was up to! Breathe, I reminded myself, just breathe.
So, instead of trying to write, I printed off a few chapters, took them to the couch and started reading, getting to know the work again, making pencil marks as I went. Now, a week later, I’m able to write, enjoying the sensation of fingers on keys; feeling my way back to the book, rediscovering what it is I am trying to say.
When my dear friend Lisa and I were out walking early one morning, the sun peeping over the horizon across the water over by the sugar factory, she told me a story from her childhood, about how it felt being a first generation Chinese New Zealander. Her story became this story, which was long-listed for the 2017 NZ National Flash Fiction Day competition. So, this one’s for you Lisa. A warm congratulations to all the winners, and thank you to Flash Frontier, where this story first appeared.
For years, the click and yawn of an opening car boot filled me with dread. As kids, when we drove over the Pae-koks to Foxton in Dad’s Telstar – brand new, white, with a maroon racing stripe and burgundy velour upholstery – and Mum saw a creek flanked by pillows of green, or an autumnal field blooming with white puffs, she’d shout, ‘Pull over! Pull over!’ in her Chinese-Kiwi accent. Dad always did, relishing the gravel skid before yanking the boot latch.
We loved to help Mum who, out there, marched the roadside in her gumboots, a different Mum to the apron-wearing one tending the bamboo steamer at home. This Mum wielded a machete with super-heroine ease, lopping off bunches of watercress and tugging dusky-gilled mushrooms from dank soil, pressing them into plastic bags my sister and I held open. Back at the car she’d wrap the watercress in The Evening Post to later boil for soup. The mushrooms she’d sauté with garlic and bacon and serve on rice.
After I turned eight, I refused to help. She’d yell for Dad to pull over. I’d groan and fold my arms. It might have been okay in Guangzhou, but here Kiwis didn’t scavenge for food on the roadside.
Yesterday, I walked across the school field holding my daughter’s hand. She pointed at the line of shade hugging the fence.
My high heels sucked in and out of the soggy ground. I glanced around. It will only take a minute, I thought. She crouched down, gathering her skirt beneath her knees – a family of white mushrooms dotted the grass – and lifted a spongy edge to peer beneath.
“Brown gills!” she said. “We can eat these ones.”
I reached into my handbag for the plastic bag I always carried, and held it open.
We are all roaring with laughter—not a polite chuckle in sight. I mean tears streaming, snorting, thigh slapping, high pitched, cross your legs before you have an accident laughter. Hell, it feels good. Emma, Kirstin and Kiri started this Writers Group in Point Chevalier four years ago, Anna joined later, I joined three months ago, and Mary’s new tonight. So, perhaps that’s the joy of laughing so hard—it joins us together, affirms that we have things in common, that we like each other. I love these girls already.
The reason for our laughter? We’d agreed to bring along a poem from our teenage years.
Earlier that evening I’d scrambled around the attic looking for the black ring binder that contained laboriously typed pages and pages and pages of poetry written between 1994 and 1996, when I was aged 17 to 20, studying journalism at AUT. The poems abruptly stopped in March 1996 when my father died, my pen stunned into silence for years after. I’d thought for a time that the poetry in that black folder might win competitions, make me famous, or at least find me my very own Ted Hughes. Continue reading