Book of the week: How to be the wife of an All Black

Renée celebrates the remarkable personal essay collection by Linda Burgess.

I read everything on a screen now because my eyesight is so bad and a computer allows me to enlarge the type. I’m one of those book readers New Zealand writers despise, and write impassioned pieces about how reading is only truly felt when you have a book in your hand. Idiots. A book isn’t a cover or a feel, it’s the words and how the writer puts them together. That’s what makes a book.

However – forget the screen – I read Linda Burgess's memoir Someone’s Wife on a large printed copy because the publishers, for some reason mysterious reason, could not or would not provide an online copy. They sent me a large print version which turned out to be half my height and as wide as my arm. The spiral binding is across the top so whenever I turn the page (upwards of course) the type is upside down so I have to turn the whole thing round to read it. After five minutes of this I rip all the pages off the spiral binding, put them in order and am then able to read them like a book, a big book yes, a book that takes up most of the dining table, yes, a book I can’t read in bed, but at least I don’t have to turn inside-out to do it.

I wonder about the publisher. Allen & Unwin couldn’t provide an online copy? Really? Or did they suspect I’d resend free copies to 5000 friends?

Nevertheless. I start reading and almost immediately there’s a smile on my face. That’s because I skip the Introduction. I don’t read Introductions, they're a waste of my reading time. Does a writer really think I need to be told her intentions or need a list of what’s in the book? Or worse, why she wrote it?  I don’t know whether Linda does this or not because I have yet to read the Introduction.

Instead I read the first essay and begin smiling. Here is someone who understands style – who understands and loves story. Someone who loves words, someone who leaves room for the reader.

Reading Someone’s Wife is like being invited to a very special event – you’re a bit worried about whether you’ll understand the language, whether you’ll fit in. And then this woman begins telling you about her life, ranging backwards and forwards and sometimes details in one essay answering questions from another and you think, okay, okay. 

Linda and I – apart from both being writers  and female – have some other more tenuous links. She lived in Pahiatua, my brother lived in Pahiatua. We both marched against the tour in 1981 and in our first year of teaching we both had a Shirley.

Linda’s Shirley is uninterested, bored, headed for trouble or more likely already there; the only thing that makes a difference in her life is marching. Well, I was one of the first marching girls in New Zealand (Taradale), only because my sister bribed me with the promise of a Saturday night dance at the Forrester’s Hall in Napier. I wasn’t very good. Too short, too dreamy, too inclined to turn left when I should turn right.

My Shirley is killed in a car crash on her way to drama class, the only reason she attends school, I’m told later that day by one of the other drama kids. Linda’s Shirley lives longer but the drama is real, unable to be fixed, lasts.   

Linda’s father is a bank manager and a lover of rugby, a vegetable grower. Her mother cooks and bakes and grows flowers. There are stories of her sisters, brother, even Harvey Crewe gets a mention. I never ever connected that murder victim with kids birthday parties, which shows not only my lack of imagination but also how people become encased in their own destination, not the journey towards it.

There are stories about school life, both as a student and as a teacher, stories about being a WAG and an aside I particularly like – "Four of us hire a mini and do a quick tour of Scotland." As you do.

I’m not a rugby or All Black fan so reading about Linda and her All Black husband Robert Burgess's flight to London so he could appear on This is Your Life is like I’ve wandered into fantasy land, exciting, interesting, funny, but unreal –  and then there’s the remembered pain and tenderness in the essay on her lost child, Toby, and I know this is real life, all right.

I don’t want the book to end but it does so I do what I always do with a book I’ve enjoyed  – I turn back to the beginning and start again. Not the Introduction – love doesn’t go quite that far yet. And there it is, that first line: "A rugby game lasts a whole day", and I’m away. And yes, I’ll buy a copy when the publisher sticks it up on Kindle.

Someone’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen and Unwin, $36.99)

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