Book Review: Barefoot Years, by Martin Edmond (2014)

Barefoot yearsEdmond’s writing transports me to a dream-world, where things are viewed as if through a filter – colors are more vivid yet muted – and almost anything can happen. It’s as if I’m floating through layers of Edmond’s memory and consciousness, much like wading through one of those layered colored-sand jars you used to get at the Easter Show.

I first discovered New Zealander Edmond through Luca Antara, a chapter of which was held up by a tutor as an ingenious take on the travel writing genre. I thought it strange, very strange indeed. I then read Dark Night: Walking with Colin McCahon – this really was an ingenious take, this time on the biography genre, based on a 24 hour period in 1984 when McCahon went missing in Sydney. Am I really here? I thought as I travelled Sydney’s streets with McCahon, lost as Mary’s little lamb. I was beginning to understand why Edmond is so revered.

It was no surprise, therefore, to sprawl into Barefoot Years and feel again as if I was really there, not there, everywhere with Edmond. I’m there as he is horrified by the “atrocity of stained torn-up pieces of towel dripping blood” (30) in the sink. I’m there as he almost crashes the tractor at Bobby’s farm (73). And I’m there when his grandfather gives him a lolly from his special tin making “the roof of my mouth contract into ridges that feel on my tongue like red bony ribs” (91).

Edmond’s most vivid childhood memories are anchored feverishly in the garden of his childhood home. He writes of this house and garden: “it is the original Memory House and the template for all other places I have subsequently known” (11). Why is it, Edmond and Kirsty Gunn mused at their talk at Auckland Library back in October, that one’s childhood home carries so much weight, and why do we return there in our minds for comfort? And I thought: Other people do this? Often I find myself lying in bed, wandering the hallways of my childhood home in Pakuranga. I wander into the kitchen – in its first iteration – with huge yellow sunflower wallpaper, and open the cupboards. I run my finger along the edge of the pottery mugs hanging from the mug tree; gaze at the contents of Mum’s mystical spice jars – daring myself to unscrew the wooden lid of the jar filled with dark red – gagging to this day at the vomitus smell of (well past its use-by-date) paprika. I go into Mum’s sewing room and open the white wooden drawers, weigh the knitting needle bag in my hand before tipping out the contents like oversized matchsticks, marvelling at the thinness and thickness of them all. And when I tire of the house, I wander every inch of the garden, rubbing between my fingers a pungent lemony leaf and the crumbling catkins of silver birches that line the driveway.

Barefoot Years is Edmond’s contributions to the BWB Texts series, a series of “short books on big subjects” by some of New Zealand’s most fascinating writers. At just 96 pages it is a thin sliver of a novel(la) and at times feels like part of a longer work. Having said that, I’m not sure I’d be able to sustain a full-length version of Barefoot Years in Edmond’s dreamy, poetic prose. But as a novella this was near perfect.

This review also appears on https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/24236335.

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