Why do we write memoir? It’s a question I often ask myself. I am not thinking so much of those who appear at workshops wanting to record their lives for their families to read when they are no longer alive to tell their story themselves. The leaving of footprints is a perfectly valid reason to write memoir, published or not. Rather, I am thinking of the legion of writers, of whom I am one, prepared to lay themselves bare before the public, stripping ourselves of our masks and often our dignity. Do we really want to tell it all for the sake of royalties, losing friends and alienating family along the way? It happens, I’ve seen it, watched a family disintegrate as the result of a biographical act. It keeps me awake at night, the worry of it all.  But as I’ve stared into the dark abyss, more times than I care to count, I’ve sort of figured it out. If we don’t do it, someone else might. The risk of the biographer is potent. Most of us have a few rotten logs on the edge of the stream, and some explorer may well come across them; it behoves us well to stop them heading upriver.

And so we turn our fascinated and occasionally horrified gaze towards the past, scribbling down our memories, interviewing our families and friends, digging out letters from rusted trunks. This might be the start of an autobiography. Or not.  That genre suggests to the reader the whole truth, the whole story of a life, nothing about the past spared.  Damn that.  It’s not that mine, or so I tell you, is so terrible, most of it is pretty ordinary. But this past belongs to me.

What then, is left to us? Well, there is memoir, a collection of memories, just that, stories from the past, chosen and curated as if our life is a superior kind of novel.  Each one will have its own inciting incident. There will be a focus, perhaps the emergence of careers, the immense rich trove of difficult families; why else did Tolstoy open Anna Karenina with that enduring line, happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? There will be a careful selection of events we want to share (for want of a better word), and an omission of those ones that haunt us, the truths that only we are ready to confront. Reader, a memoir is unlikely to be the whole truth.

So where does Barbara Else’s Laughing at the Dark sit among these overlapping genres? It is described as a memoir, but it’s a closely written, generous book, both in size and emotional heft,  packed with so many details of a life that it’s hard to see where much more could have been fitted in, how Else could have done any more than she describes to her readers here. In short, it seems closer to an autobiography than memoir, beginning at the beginning, with a vast array of characters, family, friends, not so much friends, and fellow writers appearing, taking us up to the near present. But I take her word for it, memoir it is, and a galloping good read at that.

Else’s early life is defined by the constant movement of her family from one town to another, as her bank manager father is transferred around the country for his work.  It was a way of life for the children of banking families, in the same way as that of teachers and police, a mobile society a little aside from those who settle for life in one small town after another. Its this shifting from school to school, the continual need to make new friends, to which Else attributes shyness that has followed her for much of her life. But her family was close knit, three siblings, a father who was gruff but caring, a mother who had an education in an era when it was unusual for women to have university degrees, a house (or houses, there are many) filled with books and singalongs around the piano. Although Else is a few years younger than me, there is much I identify with in her experiences, but in this matter of educational aspirations and family expectations I found myself deeply envious.

Still, despite her mother’s university background, she had strict rules that mirrored those of my mother, an attitude that can only be described in contemporary terms as prudish. Sex was not talked about and neither was death. This is the first great darkness. Else’s grandmother had lived with the family for years. When she died unexpectedly in the house one morning, the children were bundled off to school without ceremony, and the grandmother despatched without another word. It is only years later that the mother reveals how desperate she was for her caretaking role to end. Still, there is this parallel of sex as unmentionable, so disastrous in its outcome that the facts of life can only be learned through grim experience. The equation of sex and death is chilling. What were our mothers thinking?  In trying to fathom this joyless response one can only suppose that the shameful consequences of unplanned pregnancies would be like a death for their daughters.

There are three main strands to Laughing at the Dark: Barbara Else’s marriage to a globally recognised renal specialist, Jim Neale, contracted when they are at university and she is indeed pregnant, her second marriage to the writer Chris Else, and the over arching account of her battle with cancer, which links the stories together.

The marriage to Neale begins happily enough. Jim, the son of a successful doctor, is a driven student, always needing to impress his father, never feeling quite good enough. His mother has established herself as the good doctor’s wife, ever supportive, ever a role model as an entertainer with a position in society. Her son expects exactly the same of his wife. And for a long time, Barbara conforms to the role that has been carved out for her, following her husband around the world as he seeks higher and higher qualifications, moving to better and better houses, her childhood clearly having prepared herself for such a transitory existence. The couple scrimp and save in order to achieve each goal, something with which I do identify from those ‘sixties days. Two daughters arrive and are cherished, although their parenting appears to have fallen largely to their mother. And then, Barbara starts to write. And that is where things begin to fall apart. Neale sees himself as the partner who should be seen to shine in the marriage. He tells her that pride in his achievements should be enough. As Else’s story telling inches closer to real life, she begins to hide it from her husband. One day she finds him, after reading one of her stories, appearing to stare blankly at a wall. He looks up and says: “My wife is two people.” This is not an uncommon experience for the husbands of women who write.

All this, of course, will become fodder for Else’s first novel The Warrior Queen, although a number of short stories and plays are published or produced before she leaves Neale for her second marriage.

The meeting with Chris Else takes place at a writers’ gathering in Wellington. They are both still married, he to his second wife. The interest is professional, or so they insist to each other; they go about setting up the literary agency Total Fiction together. But there is an inevitability about their first clandestine rendezvous in a motel room, supposed to be a one-off but of course it’s not. There are bitter divorces, Neale dies of a heart attack (and years of overwork) while out running.

At a conference in Singapore, an excited local ex-pat told me that her book group had read Once were Warriors and its members were raising money for clothes for “all the poor little children in New Zealand”

Although Barbara will grieve deeply over this turn of events, looking back and trying to see how things could have been different, the mood has changed. Happiness has set in and becomes a constant in her life. The couple set about running their literary agency, assessing, editing, and writing their own books in adjoining rooms, enjoying a marriage that has endured now for some thirty-five years if my calculations are right. The agency has an early major success, when offered the manuscript for Alan Duff’s novel Once were Warriors. The book, about life on the outside of a violent Maori family, sold in vast quantities and Duff became an international celebrity, improving the fortunes of all concerned. As Barbara saw it, New Zealand literature was changed. Certainly, the book had a huge impact both locally and globally. There may have been some unintended consequences.  At a conference in Singapore, an excited local ex-pat told me that her book group had read Once were Warriors and its members were raising money for clothes for “all the poor little children in New Zealand”. They had nearly filled a container (I have no idea whether it was ever despatched). Barbara’s successes mount steadily, as more novels and plays appear, she edits sought after anthologies and becomes a successful writer for children as well. Soon she too is appearing at festivals and touring the world.

The memoir was already started when the writer, by then in her seventies, discovers that she has a bowel cancer too advanced for a cure and almost certainly terminal. Its an incentive to open up her life story and explore the past in a deeper and more meaningful way. As she contemplates another desperate round of chemotherapy, she writes: “My emotions are already raw from the months of surgery and dread of the treatment ahead. Memories might rock up like waves sent by a speedboat. Among the bright travelogues and cheery round ups of Jim’s work and the girls’ schooling do I want to discover signs of cracks that had begun to appear in the marriage? On the other hand, that’s what the memoir is about, isn’t it? To find out when, why, how I ended up as I am?”

So there it is, her reason for writing a memoir.

When it seems all hope is lost, she is admitted to a small and restricted trial for Nivolumab, a new drug, and there is a miracle recovery. Before long she is walking, recovering her appetite, and returning to some sense of normality. It’s a riveting aspect to the story, threaded throughout the book and told with grace and a certain quiet restraint, characteristics that seem to define Else herself.  She emerges as a resourceful and courageous woman with a beguiling sense of humour that helps her through the truly dark times. Mind you, she is not a woman to be crossed, she has kept her little list and a few scores are settled. The names might not appear but I suspect one of two of the ‘culprits’ may see themselves. Taking too much speaking time from fellow writers’ on panels could be the ultimate sin. She claims to laugh at these failings in others, but I’m not so sure.

There is a codicil to these comments.  When I accepted Laughing at the Dark for review it should have occurred to me that my name might occur between its pages, but it didn’t. The question of reviewing each others’ work is a constant dilemma in a small community of writers. Ours is a close literary world in this country, with many of us knowing each other. These references are honorable and glancing, referring as they do to long ago events, not enough I decided to disqualify me from commenting on a book I’ve greatly enjoyed.

What is there not to like? Well, not much. My eyes did glaze over once or twice at the minutiae of paper jams and where to put the printer cables in the agency’s office. Contentment isn’t freighted with the same high drama as its opposite, and tension can slide away in the face of happiness. But still, what does one wish for one’s characters but a happy ending? Else provides her own in a rich account of a contemporary life.

Laughing at the Dark by Barbara Else (Penguin, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Dame Fiona Kidman is a living legend of New Zealand letters as the author of 11 novels (her most recent, The Mortal Boy, won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand book award for best novel), plus poetry, short stories,...

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