Someone’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen and Unwin, 2019), 300 pp., $37
Ploughing through Linda Burgess’s ‘sort-of memoir’, Someone’s Wife, I’d spent a ludicrous amount of time trying to figure out her literary kin, her fellow memoirists, only to have it pointed out that my cultural references were possibly all wrong. Someone’s Wife was neither emulating the literary gossip-riddled essays of Joan Didion or Eve Babitz (although she’s the closest New Zealand has to offer, Burgess’s All Black-adjacency the equivalent of their silver screen coterie) nor the highbrow television reviewing of Clive James (although she ticks that box, too). Instead, my (male) interlocutor tells me, these might be entirely the wrong comparisons. Surely she’s subverting the genre of sports memoir, the most widely read of all New Zealand book categories? He hasn’t read Burgess. I haven’t read The Real McCaw. Still, the two could not be more different. Chronologically and geographically, Someone’s Wife maps onto the life of a former All Black: her husband, Robert. But this is the closest we come to a sportsman’s biography, or hagiography from the sidelines. This is no spectator story, but the tightly crafted, fluid narration of a life fully lived. Bob Burgess features, of course. He’s there throughout, from their early courtship in New Zealand, through the pampered expatriate life in Lyon, to muted fights in the corridor, senior citizens hissing at one another, ‘right on the border between love and hate’. But he is neither lionised nor diminished. A silent partner: beloved, and never presumptuously spoken for.
From the outset we are under no illusions: this will be a memoir vented through Burgess’s two passions: gossip and reading. Burgess justifies her gossip fetish—and the resulting (hilarious) calumnies—as an obsession with ‘that infinitely fascinating subject, the human condition’. And although she confesses to being ‘interested in character above plot’, the stories do not suffer from lack of plot, lack of direction, lack of anything. There’s no reductionist teleology, there are no linear pathways, no easy lessons or didacticism in these essays. This is no morality play. Instead, Burgess offers up ‘a sidelong glance at the times in which [she has] lived—decades of extraordinary change’. This is one of the most compelling aspects of the collection, her offering of an individual social history of late twentieth-century New Zealand. In fragments dispersed throughout the collection, Burgess remembers varied pressures and fissures: neoliberal reforms and socio-economic experimentation; the civil society surveillance (Big Sister Lite) of Girl Guides, which bizarrely monitored children’s nightwear; exponential growth in technological capacity; and the national ferment around the Springbok Tour, including Bob’s refusal to wear the black jersey and their membership of the local HART committee. Oddly, New Zealand race relations are scarcely addressed, outside the context of anti-Tour protests. In a lighter, loamier register, she notes the varieties that once grew in her father’s vegie garden, before riffing that ‘aubergines, artichokes, asparagus not in a tin, and dozens of other current staples have yet to be invented’. Without insipid pining for a halcyon era, Burgess recalls that New Zealand felt, for a long time, relatively insulated from global tumult.
Formerly published on The Spinoff, ‘We’d Be Called WAGs Now’ opens the collection with a bang. In this essay we’re introduced to the polyvalent Burgess: a rabble-rousing ‘women’s libber’ (to the vaguely misogynistic Rugby Union reps), an environmentalist, a secondary-school teacher, a ‘rugby orphan’, a stoic (in a throwaway sentence, she nonchalantly mentions taking a week off work because of a miscarriage), and, inevitably, as an appendage, an object: ‘someone’s wife’. Of course, as the book relentlessly reveals, she contains multitudes. Burgess draws out the complexities and internal rifts of gender relations, norms and experiences, from the self-victim-blaming in ‘The Stalker’ to her stark characterisation of every other woman at an All Blacks meet-and-greet function as ‘coquettish’ and repellent, ‘like being in a room overflowing with Mrs Robinsons’; the emasculation of Prince Charles (that ‘little Pommie drip’), and Ted Heath’s caustic dismissal of rugby wives. Burgess also repeatedly describes the emotional labour which falls to women—the gendered nature of maintaining relationships and communication. This automatic division of labour is never foregrounded or dissected. It is just there, a fact of life.
‘Toby’, too, was previously published on The Spinoff, and it remains breathtaking. It narrates the loss in 1973, while living far from home in Lyon, of the Burgesses’ son to cot death. The way this is nestled within this anthology, portended by various phrases (‘We have not long lost Toby, and we are drawn to people without children. I quietly covet her life’; ‘My parents are coming, planned when they had a new grandchild to visit … For the only time in my life, I see my father cry’) amplifies its emotional impact. Throughout this book, Toby’s death is deeply embedded, time-warped, a tragedy that has always already happened. The death itself is told so quickly, the tempo so relentless, you barely know what’s happening until—paragraph break—‘there’s a tiny white coffin and the other wives weep and wail and howl’. She is honest about surprising things, surprising feelings, and there is a beautiful, heartrending return to Toby in ‘Ten Christmases’, where an emotionally astute five-year-old sees, feels, and attempts to salve her grief: ‘seeing me sitting lost across the other side of the room, he will hurtle towards me, and hug me. Tightly. So tightly.’
Burgess unravels the carefully coiled skein of family creation myths, revealing the stories families tell themselves, and others, to (re)construct and reinforce themselves. Honest about the caprices of memory, both misremembered and intentionally false, she also reveals the in-built limits of these stories: the parts unsaid; the details white-lied over. This family—like every other—tells itself stories in order to live. Again, this is no linear drag: the trajectories are complex, the unravelling unpredictable. Throughout these essays, Burgess plays with time, tenses and possibilities, exploring the hypothetical and the actual. This is most powerfully done when foreshadowing her infant son’s death and her mother’s dementia. These superlative griefs enter early, quietly. The catastrophic foundations are laid. Burgess juggles tenses deftly, a feat and effect similar to her grandmother’s visually-aided storytelling: ‘She has a photo of the whole school, and she points out the boys who will die in the war.’ Melding past, present and future, she notes the deep relief once her parents reach a certain part in re-telling the family origin story: once their parents’ romance is clinched, she and her siblings ‘can relax. From now on, we can happen.’
Just as Burgess plays forcefully with tense, she plays with voices inflected by age: her narratology spans, mirrors and enhances her own life. In ‘The Easier Version’, Burgess’s voice develops from the child-like (not childish), with age-appropriate EQ (not infantile), to the adult, in which cumulative life experience has expanded her understanding and empathy. Now, having had children of her own, she understands post-natal depression, ‘how easily anyone can appear mad—can feel mad—after the birth of a baby’. She is able to imagine her ‘mad’ great-grandmother as a person, rather than an asylum inmate.
Burgess is wonderful on Lyon (the food! the ‘French auto-flirt’!); Leonard Cohen; teaching (‘an odd combination of believing in authority and being an anarchist’); the trials, tribulations and rewards of adult friendship (and her heart which ‘tentatively expands’ on finding a fellow book-lover); the falsities and truths of ‘empty nest syndrome’ (‘Re-Entering’ is a tour-de-force on the transitions of parenting and the casual cruelty of ‘mature’ children); national and collective individual memory; cats in tumble-dryers; the Royal Family; her peripatetic childhood, punctuated by constant relocations around provincial New Zealand; trees; left-handedness, everything. This is a wide-ranging, tautly structured collection. Neither quilt nor collage (these metaphors are too arts-and-craftsy for someone whom Spotlight makes suicidal), this collection presents a spectrum—unranked, unordered, unprioritised—of joys and griefs. And, of course, the promised gossip-mongering.
Despite the acknowledged vagaries of memory, Burgess remembers the absolute best, most random gossip, but the divulged content is neither discordant nor scurrilous. Often, it’s lightly dropped into a passage without comment. Other times, the gossip is paced out through rapid dialogue, the two interlocutors trying to piece together shards of shared memory into something resembling the whole. In these short riffs and conversational excerpts, this staccato jumping and scheming and straining to remember ‘the truth’ in company, you feel you are at that kitchen table, drinking the pinot noir/coffee/herbal tea with the gals, getting stuck into decades-old gossip with more gusto than a Kim Hill and Paul Holmes face-off. She’s got the celebrity goods, through rugby, cultural and serendipitous teaching connections. Beyond the usual rugby suspects, the highlights are catching glimpses of a young Jon Gadsby, cast as Iago in a sixth-form class reading of Othello; the brilliant, bitchy caricature of Ted Heath; and Spike Milligan’s all-too-brief cameo. But this gossip is never gratuitous. Burgess never punches down, and she never redacts, only anonymising one traumatic story in order to protect its protagonist. Haunting in its restraint, ‘Girl One’ is about a troubled teenager, rendered through high-school hearsay, smoke and mirrors; a story of damage told more through allusion than detail.
Unsurprisingly for a bibliophile, Burgess’s literary references are constant, sometimes smouldering. Certain male friends are described as ‘capable of stirring the primordial parts of Lady Chatterley’, Macbeth reappears several times, King Lear presages her greatest grief, and Wordsworth sneaks in, along with a riotously funny screen-writing proposal, reimagining The Famous Five as septuagenarians. A doyen of imagery, her bons-mots include wedding day ‘hip-bones as sharp as coat-hangers’; Janet Frame doppelgängers; and nun shoes (‘an interesting blend of shoes and sandals … I suspect these are made to a design approved by the Vatican to encourage celibacy’). This visual palette only expands when she is outre-mer, her French memories overlaid with classic cinema scenes and French statesmen. ‘Trees’ is a wonderful exploration of the connections between trees and literature, ranging from A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood to her great-grandfather’s role in the deforestation of New Zealand, from the entropy of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree to the shame of envying Anne Frank’s cloistered life, hidden behind a bookcase. There is the occasional misfire, like the racist archaism in ‘Ten Christmases’ (‘My father says he hates peppermint kiss lipstick. It makes me look like a Negress’). While the word chiefly dates her father, and the juxtaposition of intergenerational attitudes to race relations and racism is made clear through her and Bob’s involvement with HART, there isn’t quite enough explicit rejection of racist tropes/discourse used by intimate others. There is also some mawkish phrasing: the WhatsApp excerpts in ‘Travelling with Lucie’, for example, don’t quite work. Burgess is serious about language, though. You’ve got to love a woman—an anyone, really—who remembers an errant apostrophe six years later.
Books, ultimately, shape her idea of home, as explored in ‘This is Your Life’ and ‘Homesickness’: ‘We are driven through streets that are out of the books I’ve been reading all my life. I am transfixed … I am home.’ Burgess writes movingly about the power of (dis)placement in literature, its ability to plant a foreign concept of home, and the resulting feeling of aberration or deviance when normality is determined at (and by) the centre of the Mercator map/projection. Echoing Tim Winton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Burgess recalls how her own birthplace was fictionally created as a deviation from the British (specifically, English) norm: no thatched roofed cottages, no white cliffs, no meadows, none of the quintessentially English.
A work written with brio, Someone’s Wife is hilarious and devastating, a sliver of New Zealand culture and history told through a single vibrant life and its entanglements with others. Slouching towards Aotearoa, perhaps Burgess is our Didion, albeit less aloof, more gregarious and with better jokes.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is studying global and imperial history at Oxford University.