Steve Braunias reviews the best written book of non-fiction of 2020

I fell in crush with her at first sight – she was luminous, with long hair, a soft, oval face, and little hands. She moved in beauty. She wore all sorts of small beautiful things in her hair and on her fingers, she spoke like she was caressing language, she was interested in everyone and everything. It was the summer of 1981, in Wellington, and there was a lot of movement between two tribes – latter-day hippies and post-punks. She seemed to occupy both zones, as a flower child who was crazy about the buzzing guitar rock of the Modern Lovers LP, a sacred text back then for the truly cool, and it made her all the more intensely crushable.

We met at an urban commune. I was 20 and she was about 17, 18. I was just setting out in my lifelong course as a misfit who blundered in and out of people’s affairs, and she was destined to make small beautiful things as a film maker and an author. Miro Billbrough’s memoir In The Time of the Manaroans continues the project she began in her 2004 hour-long film Floodhouse – the strange and wonderfully poetic story of her young life. Floodhouse ends with her character (intuitively played by Victoria Thaine) at about the age of 15 or 16, leaving behind her magical, rustic, impoverished, solitary life with her father and younger sister in a hippie commune deep in the woods. (It was filmed in Australia, posing as the actual location of Manaroa in Pelorus Sound). In The Time of the Manaroans retraces those years but ends a little bit later, lapping onto the shores of 1981, when I make a cameo appearance in the book. It’s one of the best published reviews I’ve ever had: “He kisses like a girl, long and swoony. I kiss him back in kind. The loveliness sets me straight. Kissing is one of life’s sweet things; I’m only just discovering that.”

Discovery is the theme. Like her Floodhouse film, the book is a kind of coming of age story, an intimately recorded exploration of teenage female sexuality. There’s quite a bit of sex in it and not much of it’s any good: “Crap”, as the author dismisses her youthful fumblings at the commune, with good cheer. This is no misery memoir. This is a very funny and closely observed romp. There are dazzling passages, signalled right from the start – the opening 20 or so pages are perfect, every sentence exactly right, the tone and shape and movement of her prose as closely fitted as a piece of music.

The author was originally tempted to call it Cold Tea. The title refers to a hippie who visited her parents when she was four, wore a black oilskin raincoat inside the house, and liked his tea cold: “One thing I know, I have an appetite for this man….This early, mythic impression of maleness, scruffy but particular, imprints an archetype of the men I will encounter at my father’s house when I next live with him at 14, after a separation of seven years.” Her parents split up and farmed her out to live with her grandmother, a stern communist, in Wellington, and those years are described in fantastic detail. In fact all the settings are described in fantastic detail – the rooms, the food, the skies, the weather of human behaviour.


Things didn’t work out at her grandmother’s house. Her father (Norman Bilbrough, one of New Zealand’s best short story writers) came to rescue her. Her mother, Christina Conrad, was a cold, remote figure, a bystander who now and then approached the borders of her daughter’s life and  drifted away again. As an artist, she was likely in possession of genius, or maybe it was the other way around. I interviewed Christina when she was giving an exhibition at a Wellington gallery, and asked her the question that magazine editor Warwick Roger proposed every journalist should ask at least once in their career: “Are you, by any chance, insane?”

Christina Conrad and Norman Bilbrough with their youngest daughter, Paola.

Much of the book is set at the commune where her father lived in magnificent untidiness, lying in bed and writing a diary in lined school exercise books, and cooking soyabean omelettes on a firewood range that was difficult to light. They lived off the grid and off the land, alongside others who operated in some kind of self-imposed exile from the averageness of New Zealand life. They were outsiders in an outsider civilisation: “So many strange adults all inducted into complex hippy codes,” she writes.

She also writes about going to the Riverside commune in Nelson. I stayed there once. It was beautiful and hard-working, pious and crazy. I got the sense that everyone was making it up as they went along. One day a little boy defecated on top of a kitchen table. He sat there howling and filthy. His mother told him he had to take responsibility for his actions, and left him to clean it up. The other adults considered this decision and found favour in it. But the poor little fellow was only three or four and was considerably distressed, so I stepped in, cleaned the table and the boy, and took him outside to play and cheer him up. The mother was unimpressed. She  said that I had made a choice and therefore she had no say in the matter one way or another. Opinion was divided. Certainly I made the table safe to set a salad. But it was an instant solution and didn’t treat the wider problem of why the boy acted the way he did. My theory was that his actions were a protest directed at his mother, who was a complete bitch. I hated Riverside and everyone in it. But I was just passing through; as a visitor from the city, I didn’t know the workings of its complex hippy codes. Maybe the mother knew best. It might have been better if I’d left the kid to it. For all I know he’s still shitting on tables. Anyway, Bilbrough is able to write about Riverside, Manaroa and other communities with a true understanding. Her book is the work of a kind of anthropologist, with an infinite curiousity about those two great institutions of every teenage girl’s life – relationships and feelings.

But she was also a bull in the very fine china shop constructed by so many strange adults at Manaroa. She was the only teenage girl for miles: “I was a young animal.” The adults toiled; she played dress-ups, from clothes stored in a community trunk: “Once, deep in days of not much, I pluck from the chest a strapless baby-blue taffeta sheath with a layer of jewel-encrusted lace sculpting the torso. I am an instant teenage bombshell. With nowhere to go in this outlandish borrowed glamour, I take a turn of the Manaroa kitchen garden.” Nothing happens. It was not, she wanly acknowledges, “the dress you wear for an early afternoon tour of the lettuces.”

She didn’t have the usual distractions of isolated New Zealand life – TV and sport – and fell into daydreaming, drawing, waiting. People came and went, on horseback, in house trucks, on motorbikes. She writes of one visitor who gives her a massage: “Tim takes off everything. I follow suit…I lie on my front. Sitting on my bum, Tim spreads warm hands on my lower back. Face to one side on the pillow, I turn with thought. I don’t have time to feel much. Then I do. It takes a moment or two to realise that Tim has just had a significant moment on my back. Its insignificance is striking. The massage is over before it had begun.”

It’s a comic telling, and there’s a sometimes mocking but always affectionate wit throughout In The Time of the Manaroans. The book is a memory of a special place. It was a blessing to live at Manaroa. (It could have been a lot worse: think of the creeps and their victims at another New Zealand commune of the time, Centrepoint.) The late 1970s were anxious times; the threat of nuclear annihilation moved through everyone’s lives, and the fiery, radiated end was forever nigh. Communes offered an escape as well as a better way of going about things. It appealed to puritans who just wanted to be left the fuck alone. In The Time of the Manaroans evokes a joyful age of innocence and intricate social patterns. Dreams and portents were highly valued. One of the prized texts at Manaroa was One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic with its enchanting vision of life existing in improbable dream-states.

But there was darkness, too. She writes about another of her archetypes, another Cold Tea sort of guy. It’s a charming portrait without anything amiss – until she reveals the terrible thing that happened to him, and the woman he loved. They were surprised in bed by the woman’s ex-husband. Their killer took to them with a sword. He cut their heads off. She writes, “Just like that this character of ramshackle resilience ceases to exist, and so does she: their deaths are more agonising than just like and so does can suggest.”

The book honours his memory. It also honours a bygone New Zealand civilisation that now feels ancient and profound. In The Time of the Manaroans operates as a work of high art, because of the prose, and also as something very easy and entertaining to read, because of the story. The past two winners of the non-fiction book of the year prize at the Ockham awards have both been memoirs – Driving to Treblinka by Diana Wichtel, and Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter – and In The Time of the Manaroans is in line to make it a hat-trick. It’s better written than any non-fiction book published in New Zealand this year by a long, long stretch.

In The Time of the Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough (Victoria University Press, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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