South-West of Eden, A Memoir 1932–1956, C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, 2010), 345 pp., $45.00
For someone described by his publisher as a ‘towering figure in New Zealand literature’ – a description the author would probably endorse – one approaches the memoir of his youth with expectations of discovering the magical springs of his inspiration or, to the contrary, a story of childhood deprivation and loss that fuelled his high ambition and achievement.
The surprise is that C.K. ‘Karl’ Stead’s youth was rooted so firmly in the conventional and prosaic, within such a limited familial and environmental reach, that its narration, at times, becomes simply mundane. We must wait until Stead reaches university before the narrative becomes truly engaging; and therein lies the tale.
Stead lived all his childhood at 63 Kensington Avenue, Mount Eden, and went to nearby Mangawhau School before progressing to Mount Albert Grammar. For the first seventeen years of his life ‘there were five of us’ – ‘the grandmother’, mother Olive, father Jim and older sister Norma who, with Stead, formed a group ‘at intervals turbulent, sad, combative, hysterical; but … also full of jokes, music, good talk, caring and love.’ Stead was named for his Swedish master-mariner grandfather, Christian Karlson, a looming figure of romance and myth who, though dead before Stead was born, he felt to be ‘a sixth family member’ who ‘subtly, invisibly, ruled the roost.’ Karlson had built 63 Kensington Avenue over two quarter-acre sections in the early 1920s and, after his death, the most economic arrangement was for only child Olive and family to move in with her mother. For Stead’s father this seemed a ‘trap from which there was no escape; yet he loved the house and the garden, and made them (almost, but not quite) his own.’ [Read more…]