ReadingRoom

Caroline and Sarah, a love story

How the lockdown brought memoirists Caroline Barron and Sarah Myles together.

Caroline Barron: Meeting—or should I say not meeting—author Sarah Myles was random. But it feels more weighty than that. A whiff of meant to be. Let me go back to the beginning. A festival session pairing cancelled by Covid. A 4pm Zoom wine session to introduce ourselves that first week of lockdown—me in shorts and a T-shirt beneath the sun on the deck at Ripiro, she crowned with a halo of light streaming through the window of her Napier home office.  

"I’ve read your book," I say. Sarah is the author of a memoir, Towards the Mountain: A story of grief and hope 40 years on from Erebus, shortlisted for an Ockham award for best book of non-fiction.

"I’m reading yours," she replies. Bateman has just published my memoir Ripiro Beach: A memoir of life after near death.

"It’s as if—"

"—as if—"

"It’s as if I’m reading myself writing your story," I blurt out.

"Yes!"

There is a beat of silence, then a piwakawaka titters overhead.

"I’m hungry!" yells my 8-year-old.

"The wifi’s glitching!" calls Sarah’s 10-year-old.

Sarah Myles: I was supposed to appear with author Caroline Barron at the Auckland Writers Festival in May. It’s true, we had never met, but my love affair with memoir drew me to her and therefore to Ripiro Beach. I wanted to know if we spoke the same language, if she was brave, if she spoke the Truth. I already knew she had one hell of a story to tell, and for some reason we had been matched on this most public of first dates.

But our meeting was not to be. . . In light of the Covid rāhui, the Auckland Writers Festival was cancelled, our session along with it. But despite this, and quite unexpectedly, I found a love-connection among the pages of Ripiro Beach.

When I read memoir, I love going deep. Yes, I want to read beautiful words but I also want to unravel the mysteries and secrets of human nature: I want to taste tears borne of loss and joy; I want to hear the thrill of ecstasy reverberate off the mountaintops; I want to feel the wailing of grief ripple through my body. I also look for the touchstones—the objects and routines taken from daily life, from the quiet monotony we all share—things that can be excavated and polished piece by piece, that become a bricolage of time and purpose, of life.

But mostly, if I’m honest, I look for vulnerability and truth, the raw truth that undoes me and speaks to me and reminds me I’m not alone. I want to be left breathless with a sense of being seen. It’s hard to find all that in memoir.

Caroline: We have a lot in common. Our husbands are similarly inventive and kind, and both from Hawke’s Bay. Even our youngest daughters marvel at each other’s rad matching undercuts. We also discover that, in different ways, the things that had nearly unstitched my life had, at times, almost unstitched hers.

Sarah: Caroline’s honesty about her struggles with motherhood, of physical health and mental wellness, her determination to delve into her family’s past. . . it all felt so familiar. Yet, page after page, I also found it so confronting that at times I found myself only able to read a paragraph or two before I had to have a break (and then I would spend that break wondering, what happens next?). So I would return, egging her on, telling her what to do, hoping she took the next step on her journey of discovery, of wellness, of transformation. We were girlfriends sharing intimate life details over a cuppa in our jammies, realising with relief that our experiences were the same, that we weren’t alone. But then I would remember she actually knew nothing about me, we’d never even met, so how could this be?

Caroline: When you go digging around in the past, you discover things you might not quite be prepared for. And once you start, you can’t stop. “There is nothing beautiful about this hole,” Sarah writes in her stunning memoir, Towards the Mountain, “but it calls to me like the peak summons the climber.”

Sarah: Caroline’s beautiful prose and steadfast commitment to her quest brought me back to the heart of the story and I found myself rooting for her again and again.

Caroline: Discovering the truth can be traumatic. The weight of secrets, when sequestered away by parents or grandparents for decades in a misguided attempt at protection, is exponential when eventually revealed. And the not knowing—in Sarah’s case what really happened to her grandfather Frank when he died on Erebus that 1979 afternoon, and in mine, who my father’s birth parents were—is a labyrinth that a writer detective cannot give up on, no matter how long it takes for it to come rising up through time’s rubble.

Sarah: There comes a time in great storytelling when the Truth finally surfaces. It’s a turning point usually borne of tragedy and despair, a glorious and painful place where we meet the broken hero. They’ve hit rock bottom—all hope is lost. It is in this moment that the cracks appear and, in the words of Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in. In Caroline's memoir, these are my most favourite moments of all: "‘If someone asked me at that moment what was wrong, what caused me to be this way, I’d reel off a list, the layers of earth and sand and clay that are burying me (. . .) There are too many things to process so it is easier to remain buried beneath, digging out a pocket of air around my mouth and nose so that I can breathe, but only just. I know then, bawling on the side of the road, that something has to change."

Caroline: In Towards the Mountain the personal is political. Haunted by the memory of the night her grandfather's plane plunged into the snow, Sarah thoughtfully, sensitively, and doggedly, unfurls Frank’s—and in turn her own—story and psyche. “I am at a point where I have already learned so much,” she writes, “—too much, perhaps—yet I cannot stop. I cannot halt this forward momentum. If my grandfather made it home from the mountain, then surely I will make it back from this, too.”

Sarah: There were times on my own journey when I wondered if I should keep going, questioning if what I had uncovered in my family story was worth the pain, was worth knowing the actual, real, uncomfortable truth of it all. I could see this same hesitation in Ripiro Beach, yet Caroline persevered with curiosity and compassion, with courage and an all too familiar determination. It’s a brave writer who fronts up to a murky past and diligently sifts through its layers to better understand the present. It speaks to the mettle of who she is, of the pact she made with herself to keep going and not give up.

Caroline: I ask Sarah, towards the end of lockdown, if publishing her and Frank’s story means she can now place it all into a box, slide it onto a high shelf and forget about it for a while.

"I could ask you the same," she says.

Sarah: To this day we’ve never met, but still, I am in love with Caroline Barron.

Ripiro Beach: A memoir of life after near death by Caroline Barron (Bateman, $34) and Towards the Mountain: A story of grief and hope 40 years on from Erebus (Allen and Unwin, $39.99) are available in all good bookstores.

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