Sunday 2 September 2012

The home and the heart

Have finished reading James McNeish's Touchstones (Random House, 2012), all in one day.The narrative is framed by his relationship with his father - the last and best photo is of him. The other photos seem to have suffered in the printing, one of them at least is all shadows.

McNeish worries away at the notion of the 'outsider', a leitmotif in his life, as a writer, a New Zealander overseas, or a Pakeha among Maori - though there is Maori in him, too. One stretch of his life was spent removed from the rest of the country, 15 years writing from a sand-spit where he lived with his wife. Asked in a recent interview where home was, he said: "Wherever my wife is".

Writing in a remote place is also the subject of Colm Toibin's latest book of essays, New Ways to Kill your Mother, about how writers achieve the distance from home needed in order to develop their writing. In Brian Moore's case, he left his mother-country, Ireland. The end of his life was spent in an isolated spot on California's coast. Toibin writes: "Imaginatively he lost touch with Ireland and never fully grasped North America". The perils of exile, the damage.

This does not apply to McNeish, a New Zealander writing about his own people. But the same theme is in his book - the need to get away,  to meet new people in different countries, to  see oneself and one's culture in as broad a context as possible. 

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