Michelle Langstone: "She dissects her life with the vulnerability of your best friend at a sleepover."

Madison Hamill reviews a book of grief and birth

Michelle Langstone’s essay collection Times Like These feels like an explosion in slow motion. She begins in the epicentre, with the death of her father. “My grief is a shining coin,” she writes, “an Olympic flame, a phoenix rising. My grief is a pet, a limping shadow, a thief”.

Her prose is richly layered. As you might expect from a talented actress, she has great skill in observing the little things people do that reveal the heart of who they are. Her father shines from the beginning as a character “stubbornly determined to be in the world”, even in his last moments. A man who went to his own party as Groucho Marx and stayed in character the whole day, who, in the hospital bed, hallucinating and worried about what he will leave behind, draws her in to dreaming up a bank robbery scheme.

Only towards the end of the book does Langstone’s mother take centre stage as she is “brought into a focus that is hers alone” in the absence of her husband. Langstone writes perceptively of the changing relationship she has with her mother as she grows older – “I feel like her equal, and like her child, and I feel like a mother too, because I am watching out for her happiness.” And perhaps it’s this new sense of equality that allows her to depict her mother with such clarity both as an individual and as a mother – a skilled gardener, filling up spaces in her life with plants, who through doing so continues to nurture her family. “My mother comes around one Saturday and takes charge of my grief and my worry. She rips out all the dying plants and inspects them like a forensic expert, identifying the problems with the soil and the sunlight.”

Sometimes she draws on familiar metaphors: her brother “laid the past to rest and planted the ground for a legacy to grow”; her mother draws on “a well-spring of her own invention”. Initially, I pulled back a little, detecting sentimentalism – hard to avoid in a book that speaks to the sadness and nostalgia of grief. But someone recently reminded me that unthinkingly avoiding all cliches is not the only valid approach to good storytelling. They were speaking about Māori cultural norms, where metaphors and sayings repeated over the generations become whakataukī – linguistic taonga. It made me think of how sometimes, a much-loved descriptor can make a voice very readable, passing invisibly like a well-recognised face in a familiar crowd. Perhaps it’s a matter of balance, which Langstone has. Just at the right moments, she makes you look again, startles you with her precision and simplicity: “I leave the session and brush past someone in the hallway whose face runs with tears. The part of myself made mean by grief is glad to see someone else suffering. In the foyer, children’s drawings have been stuck to the windows and they look like stained glass. Many of the drawings have people, and many of the people have wings.”

Throughout the book, the aftereffects of her father’s death are felt in the pieces of her life that Langstone lays out for us, his absence a connecting thread. Everything down to her relationship to her own body is affected. “I am round in the places I need to be”, she writes. “When dad got sick and his body began to waste and he grew thinner and thinner it changed how I felt about the weight on my bones.”

A childhood, at times magical, at times fraught with anxiety, is brought to life alongside the aftermath of her father’s passing and the long process of healing from it. By the time Langstone describes trying to make a family of her own through IVF, a tug-of-war between pain and hope, we feel we understand everything that lies behind her desire for children – a deep love of family, the loss of a family member reinforcing the urgency of mortality. As a result, Times Like These is a satisfying read, an emotional journey that’s hard to find in an essay collection.

The book includes what I would call a “lockdown essay”, a genre label I use informally to encompass essays about people’s personal experiences of the 2020 Level 4 lockdown. I can’t shake the notion that everyone of a certain financial class had exactly the same few weeks. They’re always a hard sell. However, her essay depicts that zeitgeist – the strange dreams, restlessness, long walks, brain turning to mush, newfound appreciation of recovering greenery – with elegance. A father and son flying a kite becomes a rare communal moment: “Everyone out on the field stops for a moment and watches the dad show [Bruno] the kite on the roof, and how his small face falls. We are united in this most simple pursuit. We’re all Bruno, doing our best, and we’re all that kite, sometimes airborne, sometimes stuck.”

While on her daily lockdown walks, Langstone writes messages and ties them to trees for others to find: I hope you won’t be too lonely, she writes, I hope we can hold on to some of this simplicity. In some ways, Times Like These is another message tacked to a tree – a kindness of saying “I’ve been through this too, let’s sit awhile in each other’s company.” She dissects her life with the vulnerability of your best friend at a sleepover, though a great deal more skill. Reading it feels like how Langstone describes taking on a new character as an actor: “You make fresh meaning of the ordinariness of being human, and you find stillness.”

Times Like These: On grief, hope & remarkable love by Michelle Langstone (Allen & Unwin, $37) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Madison Hamill won the 2021 Ockham New Zealand national book award for best first book of non-fiction for her essay collection Specimen. She lives in Wellington.

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