Tales from the Wood’s Edge: A memoir by Wilma Laryn (Wilma Laryn, 2022), 378pp, $36; So Far, For Now by Fiona Kidman (Penguin Random House, 2022), 272pp, $38
These memoirs are by two exceptional Aotearoa women. Wilma Laryn’s Tales from the Wood’s Edge is her first book. Fiona Kidman’s So Far, For Now joins a catalogue of over thirty publications that includes non-fiction, novels, short story and poetry collections. Both books cover events from the authors’ lives connected by underlying themes. Laryn’s book explores the process of making a new place become home. Kidman’s essays are underpinned by a major life change: the loss of her husband of almost six decades.
First, a disclosure: I expected to enjoy Tales from the Wood’s Edge, having previously met the author. Ten years ago, I moved to Shalamar Drive, less than ten kilometres from central Christchurch, and discovered some rather good wine was being created locally. Wilma Laryn and her husband were producing pinot gris at the Cracroft Chase vineyard at the end of our road. Laryn’s memoir tells how the winery came into existence. She covers growing the grape, harvesting, the winemaking process, distribution, and much more.
While many New Zealanders yearn to visit Italy, the so-called Tuscan dream, the Laryns have followed the opposite path. They came to New Zealand from Italy, having lived in locations such as Japan and Kenya on the way, and became an important part of the Christchurch community.
For me, a memoir has to be remarkable to make it worth reading. It either needs to showcase an extraordinary life or requires a fresh yet authentic look at an ordinary one. Wilma Laryn’s life is extraordinary, but she also presents it in a refreshing and entertaining manner.
As a former homebrewer, I knew I’d like the book. What I hadn’t expected was to laugh out loud as I read Tales during my lunch break at work. Colleagues gave me strange looks as I chortled in the staffroom. I discovered my former neighbour’s hidden talents, why the family came to New Zealand and what they’d done before, while being entertained by her wry wit, dry humour and love of the double entendre.
The narrative doesn’t follow a linear structure and is better for it. Instead, each chapter revolves around a theme; a style the author identifies as picaresque, a genre typically featuring a rogue as storyteller. Laryn recounts a tale about the grape harvest, a holiday, a family pet, a significant snowfall, and then draws parallels from the past. The author isn’t a rogue, but there’s a loveable naughtiness to her writing. Though she’s no rascal, Laryn confesses to multiple misdemeanours, including doing something unforgivable with a ferret.
Tales from the Wood’s Edge covers the family’s acclimatisation, including familiarisation with the Kiwi dialect. The author introduces us to a herd of feral deer, each creature christened Penelope. We learn about the acquisition of an outdoor shower, a catastrophic earthquake and a bushfire that almost destroyed the family’s home (and mine). We read about a radio broadcast that’s interrupted by a very cheeky penguin.
Prior to retirement in 2018, the author was busy. The vineyard created a boutique wine widely recognised for its quality. Laryn made a radio programme, taught Italian cuisine, and was involved in the local music scene and the Dante Alighieri Society, an organisation that promotes Italian culture overseas.
Since retirement, Wilma is equally active. Now based in Auckland, she follows her other passion: sailing. Having published her first book, the author is writing the sequel.
In her closing remarks, Laryn mentions her first readers and their suggested edits. They did a good job guiding and suggesting, but they didn’t rewrite the book. You hear Laryn’s true voice, the Wilma-esque turn of phrase, words presented in a characteristic order, which may reflect Laryn’s thoughts in Italian, or might simply be her unique style.
You don’t need to know Wilma Laryn to love this book; you’ll love it anyway, and when you finish reading it, you’ll feel as if you know her.
So Far, For Now isn’t Fiona Kidman’s first memoir but rather a continuation of a series that began with At the End of Darwin Road in 2008. The author embarked on this latest book after losing her husband of fifty-eight years. The work examines the particular form of bereavement that follows the loss of a partner. Many poignant issues are covered, their telling perhaps influenced by an altered perspective. As stated in the preface: ‘The past doesn’t change, but how we look at it can.’
Kidman begins with ‘Mine Alone’, a section conveying the finality of separation as she describes the death of her husband Ian—an ending that comes at the beginning. The reader understands Kidman’s loss from the outset. The events are portrayed without pathos, yet we feel the depth of the couple’s union. We care about the man and empathise with the partner who is left behind.
In ‘About Grandparents’, Kidman reflects on ancestors and descendants, speaking of forebears who hailed from Scotland and Ireland and the hardships they endured. We learn of Ian’s Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Raukawa lineage. The author shares her views on colonisation (‘settlers’ shame’). She describes the close bond she shared with her maternal grandfather. (‘I was like a bell hung round his neck.’) On her own father becoming a grandfather, Kidman states he discovered ‘a love that tumbled out unrehearsed’.
Kidman describes her early years in Hāwera and teenage experiences in Waipu, south of Whangārei, where her family lived kilometres from the township without the benefit of running a car. She recalls a short story, ‘Flower Man’, that draws on school day experiences, her first piece to be published in Landfall.
The author devotes a section to writing memoir based on experiences at a Wellington writing group. She observes some members describe their lives as being so extraordinary they don’t know where to begin, while others complain of leading such dull existences that they struggle to reveal themselves. Perhaps writing a successful memoir requires the author to make selections so they find themselves somewhere between these two extremes?
In ‘The Outsiders’, the focus is on those marginalised by society. Kidman describes her motivation for writing This Mortal Boy, a part-fictionalised account about the hanging of a young Irish migrant, Albert Black, after another young man dies during an altercation. The author speaks of her own experience as a young woman in the same time and place as the protagonist. She speaks of ‘Widgie’ culture and how teenage morals were thought to be declining during the era. This may have influenced the outcome for Black.
Other essays cover a range of topics, including admiration for author Marguerite Duras, Kidman’s complex friendship with poet Denis Glover, and thoughts on aviator Jean Batten. The author describes experiences at literary festivals, responses to human touch and attitudes towards the body. When recalling a writing retreat in Dunedin, she elaborates on the bittersweet relationship with her father. Kidman discusses the concept of colonisation by language, drawing analogies with the tendency for migrants to rename themselves to blend with dominant cultures.
Kidman notes how writing may serve as a political act. We encounter the author’s feminist perspective regarding sex and contraception and how women’s roles change throughout history. There are thoughts on self-isolation during the Covid pandemic and Kidman’s involvement in the campaigns following the Pike River mining disaster, with and later without her husband.
A recurring theme is how viewpoint changes as an observer evolves. Kidman states, ‘When I was young, I didn’t have the kind of curiosity that asked who had been before.’ She is speaking of her prior indifference towards people responsible for riverside tree planting. Similar shifts in perspective are mentioned throughout the book.
The final section, ‘This New Condition’, examines the best friendships, with sumptuous descriptions of shared food (something Laryn also features in her book) and how friendships change as we do. Kidman finishes with observations about widowhood, including the implications of the term itself.
Throughout these descriptions, Kidman pinpoints her own experiences and discoveries about her forebears that inform her fictional work. She refers to artefacts inherited from ancestors, such as her great-grandmother’s mother-of-pearl ring. Laryn speaks of items she has accumulated on her travels, their significance, and her reluctance to let them go. In this way, both authors associate personal history with treasured taonga.
In the preface to So Far, For Now, Kidman states, ‘Every life is extraordinary if you allow it to be.’ I agree. However, I believe some lives are more extraordinary than others. They are the ones that inform and inspire us. These books show two fine examples.
NOD GHOSH has written three novellas-in-flash: The Crazed Wind (2018), Filthy Sucre (2020) and Toy Train (2021), all from Truth Serum Press. Forthcoming books: Throw A Seven (Reflex Press), Love, Lemons and Illicit Sex (Truth Serum Press), The Two-Tailed Snake (Fairlight Books) and How to Bake a Book (Truth Serum Press).