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There was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush. The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.
Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’
Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’
Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.
I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’
In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’
I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’
I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.
Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.
Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.
Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems
Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess