Linda Burgess (photo by Robert Burgess) and her memoir, Someone’s Wife.
Linda Burgess (photo by Robert Burgess) and her memoir, Someone’s Wife.

BooksSeptember 3, 2019

Linda Burgess, this is your life: her new essay collection, reviewed

Linda Burgess (photo by Robert Burgess) and her memoir, Someone’s Wife.
Linda Burgess (photo by Robert Burgess) and her memoir, Someone’s Wife.

Loved Linda Burgess’s essays for The Spinoff? Now she’s written a whole book of ’em. And it is, predictably, terrific.

With love, Linda Burgess writes simply in her dedication. 

With love, and god there is so much of it here, in these essays, this “memoir of sorts”, you’ll get to the end and feel like your cup runneth over purely by association. 

But let’s start at her very beginning. “I wasn’t born on the kitchen table. For years I thought I was.”

That’s how she opens an essay on the nature of memory. Fallible, obviously. Doesn’t matter, you’ll think. You’re 50 pages deep by then. You’ll think: just let me keep reading.

And she keeps going like that, restrained and warm and dry. She writes with a calm sort of surefootedness. Hardly any semicolons. Lots of short sentences. And she’s perceptive. Character has always struck Burgess as more important than plot, she writes in the introduction; well, kids, this is how you do a character sketch. On page 90 a new principal arrives at the school where Burgess is teaching. Slender, elegant, a helmet of immaculate white hair. “She has no children of her own. She tends to believe that nothing sorts a girl out better than providing her with a pony.” Boom, done. A portrait in one paragraph. Next?

I should introduce Linda. She lives in Wellington with her husband Robert, who was an All Black. Hence the title. They have two adult children and a clutch of beloved grandchildren. She has had a long and wonderful career teaching and writing: a highlight is the 1994 novel Between Friends, shortlisted for best first book at the Montanas. She didn’t win, though, and then she didn’t win again in the 1997 Katherine Mansfield short story comp and the 2000 Sunday Star-Times version. Runner-up! Ugh. 

She could well win, this time, with Someone’s Wife – although she will be in the same Ockhams category as Vincent O’Malley. Ugh.

This book happened because a year ago Linda wrote an essay for The Spinoff on being a WAG in the 1970s. Commissioned by Steve Braunias, whom she thanks in her introduction, it caught the eye of Allen & Unwin, and here we are. That essay’s in Someone’s Wife. It provided the title, even. We wanted to include it in our book too – The Spinoff Book, a celebration of our first five years, due out a couple of months from now – but Allen & Unwin said no. So. It’s a wonderful essay. If you haven’t read it, you can do so now, here.

Linda Burgess getting on the All Blacks supporter bus in Edinburgh (Credit:
Barry Durrant)

The best conversationalists are listeners, right? Those rare people who only chip in when they’ve got something worth saying. That’s how Linda Burgess writes. That’s why she’s such a pleasure to read. Mostly, she’s just looking around, and writing what she sees.

Small town rural New Zealand is what she sees, first of all. Burgess spent her childhood hopping around the North Island – her father worked for a bank. She remembers Pātea at Christmas time, lights strung up across “its wide treeless blandness”. Trees, Christmases, Leonard Cohen concerts: these are the structural pegs she uses to keep things coherent. 

But the book very naturally settles itself around a singular, tender core. Toby died in his bed at 11 weeks old. A friend who lost her adult son says the worst kind of condolence is when well-meaning people tell her they can’t imagine what it feels like. Of course you can, she always thinks, it’s just so horrible you don’t want to let yourself. 

Burgess knows this, too, and so she leads us to Toby’s chapter gently. Something very sad is coming, she warns 60 pages earlier, in a passage that’s ostensibly about why she loves teaching:

Not hard if your subject is English, when years and years after first reading it, when you suffer a gut-wrenching loss, King Lear’s saddest five words – Never, never, never, never, never – come back to you and make you weep in the night.

Then, 20 pages out: “Toby is about to be born”. Closer, closer, “We have not long lost Toby, and we are drawn to people without children.” Finally, “The summer after Toby dies, we travel, travel, travel.” Nearly there. 

Linda, Toby and Robert Burgess

I remember seeing this essay on The Spinoff last year when I was finally, finally pregnant and I remember saying “NOPE” and shoving my phone under a cushion. I can’t do it now, either. Now I have an 11 week-old baby. I skip the essay and come back to it when baby is 12 weeks. I still flinch as I read. 

Of course Burgess holds your hand through it. There’s no dawdling, no wandering off – just stepping stones of trauma-honed detail. One foot in front of the other. A birth. A funny hospital story. A baby, the best baby, obviously. Not a pudding like that other baby. A sheepskin, a virus, a visit, a tiny white coffin. And then comes the putting-back together. 

I don’t want this. I don’t want sadness. I don’t want pity. I want normal. Please, normal. All the time, we look after each other. We respectfully balance the grief: my turn. Your turn. It is because of this, I think, that 45 years later we are still together.

Tender, tender, all the way through. ‘Who’, she writes, referring to veal calves. Not ‘which’. Here she is on the cat that adopted her at teachers’ college in Christchurch: “I’m crying on the sofa, she comes up beside me and puts her paw on my shoulder. Tentatively. Quietly. Lovingly. You don’t forget things like this.”

Sometimes, kitchen-table births notwithstanding, it seems Burgess doesn’t forget anything. Long passages are taken up explaining who’s at various decades-ago dinner parties or weekend jaunts; who married which sister and who fetches the lemonade and who is studying engineering. They could easily have been cut but I’m glad they weren’t, because a) they stop you completely wolfing down this beautiful book and b) they remind you that this is a woman who remembers. We’re not here for a hazy potter-around.

There’s a concept in defamation law that’s stuck with me since uni. It’s the idea of a “right thinking member of society”. We were taught to imagine this mythical right-thinking person reading our work. Worried you’re defaming someone? Consider whether what you are writing – about a business, say, or a minor celebrity – would make that right-thinking person think less of them. That’s the acid test. I’ve always pictured this one-person jury as a mash-up of Kim Hill and Diana Wichtel, but they’ve had to shuffle over now to make room for Linda Burgess. Wise, lovely owls on a branch in my head. 

Linda Burgess, right-thinking person, writes things like “I judge Christmas by the number of books I get” and like “you’re not meant to die when you’re only in my sister’s class”.

She calls her own father a “kind racist”! She says he has “a lucky-bugger grin”. She gets attached to a doomed walnut tree and to little shoes with buttons on the straps. She stands up to the old boys of the rugby establishment. She stands up against apartheid. She stands up to a midwife who has scared her labouring daughter:

Never,” I say, as if I’ve just discovered a 4th Former is peddling drugs, but far more terrifying than I ever was as a teacher, ‘never never never use the words dead baby to a woman who’s giving birth.”

Never, never. 

I could go on quoting and raving but look, please, just read this book. Buy it for your Mum, because it’s about kids and kind friends and the shit women have had to put up with. Buy it for your kind old racist Dad because it’s got a bit of rugby and a bit of farming and a bit of the good old days. Buy it for yourself, because it’s terrific, and it will stick in your head, and so will Linda, and you’ll be glad of it. 

Someone’s Wife: a memoir of sorts, by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available at Unity Books.

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