Author Features / Features / Fiction

Barbara Anderson, Unavoidably Detained

By Sue Dickman

New Zealand literature recently made the news with 28-year-old Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize win for her 800-page novel, The Luminaries. Though Catton was born in Canada, and her father an expat American, she grew up in Auckland and lives there still. If Catton is New Zealand’s newest—and youngest—literary light, then Barbara Anderson was one of its latest blooming and oldest. Anderson, born in 1926, had not yet been published when Catton was born in 1985. But four years later, when she was 63, her first book of stories, I think we should go into the jungle, was published to acclaim. She continued to write steadily through her 70s and into her 80s, producing two books of stories, eight novels and one autobiography before her death earlier this year at the age of 86.

My introduction to Anderson and her work took a circuitous route between New Zealand and North America via India. One of the pleasures of travel to India is that contemporary Commonwealth fiction is easily available at reduced prices. Over the years, I’ve discovered British, Australian, even Canadian writers I might never have heard of at home. And so it was with Anderson. I first read her 1995 novel The House Guest in New Delhi. A few years later, I found All the Nice Girls (1992) in a bookshop in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen an Anderson novel in the U.S. except in the occasional library collection. Although her award-winning second novel, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, was published here in 1993 by W.W. Norton, it was not reviewed widely (despite a positive notice in Publishers Weekly) and didn’t sell, and none of her later novels ever had an American edition.

This is a shame. Anderson’s work is smart and accomplished, humorous and humane at the same time, with fully-realized and believable characters. She’s got a lovely eye for detail and a great ear for dialogue. The books may be very specific in their sense of place—almost always New Zealand, with the occasional trip abroad—but they are universal in their themes. Her language is colloquial, and while an American reader might be confused by references to unfamiliar words—“jandals,” for example, or “skiting”—it’s never off-putting. Anderson herself claimed that after years of reading American novels, she still had no idea what “bleachers” were. (Tama Janowitz eventually told her.)


“Barbara Anderson is a born writer; she’s just been unavoidably detained for 40-odd years.”
Nick Hornby in his 1991 Sunday Times review of Girls High.

Anderson was born in 1926 in Hawkes Bay, an area on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The region is now known for producing fine wines, but when Anderson was growing up it was sheep farming country. Like the characters in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, she spent much of her young adulthood wanting to get out of “the Bay.” Although she described herself as “the girl who always won the essay prize at school,” she was also a doctor’s daughter, and she earned her first college degree in zoology and botany at the University of Otago in 1947. This paved the way for work as both a medical technician and a science teacher. “That’s what happened then,” Anderson said in a 1991 interview. “If you were reasonably academic, you did your qualifications and got a ‘good job.’ If I’d have said I was going to make a career as a writer, people would have fallen about laughing.” It was her 1951 marriage to Neil Anderson, a young officer in the Royal New Zealand Navy, that ultimately got her away from home. As his career flourished, the family traveled extensively. Through her 30s and 40s, Anderson continued to work in classrooms and labs, travel, raise her two sons, and hold down the fort during her husband’s long absences. But when she reached her 50s, she realized that “drifting and dreaming” wasn’t enough. She decided to go back to school, this time studying literature at Victoria University. She began in 1980, at the age of 53.

Anderson credits poet Bill Manhire with instilling in her the importance of discipline. She hadn’t written much besides poetry before enrolling in his creative writing course in 1983, but her portfolio won her admission. In Getting There, her autobiography, she writes, “I was delighted to hear I was accepted, but not surprised. For some reason, I had thought I would get in, not from the excellence of my product but because I had to. It was now or never.”

Manhire also seems to have given Anderson crucial career advice, suggesting she submit a play to a contest or compile her stories into a collection. Before a trip to England with her husband, he recommended contacting literary agents in London and gave her some names. One of those agents agreed to represent her on the basis of her stories and the first few chapters of her first novel, Girls High. I think we should go into the jungle, published in 1989, was shortlisted for the Wattie Prize, New Zealand’s most prestigious book prize, and for the New Zealand Book Award for fiction. When it was published in the UK several years later, Michael Hulse in the Guardian Weekly called it “the sharpest collection in English since Carver’s Cathedral in 1984.”

Girls High was treated with similar enthusiasm. Nick Hornby reviewed it for The Sunday Times and pronounced it “the most enjoyable book” he had read so far that year. (Ever self-deprecating, Anderson pointed out in an interview that the book had been published in February.) The British reviewers were startled to learn that this new author was not as youthful as her writing style. Hornby’s review begins this way:

Even before its first page, Girls High promises freshness and originality: its contents page is simply irresistible. ”Jenni Murphy thinks about her sexuality”; ”Sooze thinks about Bryce’s job in the morgue”; ”Thea Sinclair thinks about the Aerial Survey in 1978”; ”Miss Franklin remembers the smell of pepper.” One immediately turns to the back of the book, to find a photograph of the woman who thinks about Jenni Murphy thinking about her sexuality. Curiouser and curiouser; Barbara Anderson is 65, this is only her second book (the first to be published outside her native New Zealand), and her portrait suggests that she may be distantly related to the Duchess of Devonshire.

Anderson’s age gives her work perspective, and one of the pleasures of her novels is seeing a modern sensibility even in stories set in the past. Anderson had lived long enough to know what had changed—especially for women—and what hadn’t, and her characters wrestle with both societal and familial expectations. Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, her second novel, spans more than four decades and explores the long and tumultuous relationship between Jack Macalister and Sarah Tandy, childhood comrades, teenage newlyweds, lifelong artists. Sarah, the artist’s wife of the title, is a painter and Jack a writer, but their careers veer apart over the course of their lives. Jack struggles to write, while Sarah struggles to paint and to keep their family together. It’s not an even battle.

Sarah and Jack grow up together in Hawke’s Bay with their friend Charles Bremner, their parents all friends as well. Early on, Anderson gives us a glimpse of the three mothers, all former nurses, who share a “maternity cloak, a green wool velour designed to hide their shameful shapes in turn.” Sarah herself gets pregnant at 17 and marries Jack, and the two move to Wellington. Jack works in a wool factory, writing at night, and Sarah paints on the beach, eventually gaining a teacher in Otto Becker, a retired Austrian émigré who sees her talent. Not only is there no “maternity cloak” for her, Sarah “refused to wear the fashionable maternity garments of the early fifties, the straight skirts with a scoop removed to accommodate the belly hidden beneath vast smocks. She tied her gaping trousers together with string, wore a checked shirt of Jack’s and washed her hair each day. Her cheeks glowed with health.”

Sarah’s early marriage and the arrival of her first daughter, Dora, prevent her from going to art school as planned, but it doesn’t mean she gives up her desire to paint. Jack’s fierce ambitions also guide him. But Anderson is unsentimental about the toll that motherhood can take on female artists. Right after Dora’s birth, Sarah considers this:

She was bewildered by the monstrous regiment of women who assumed her reaction to this solemn infant would be as milky and Madonna-like as theirs. Her honesty rebelled, she longed to shout at their besotted faces, ‘She’s here because we fucked.’ She had assumed that maternal feelings would descend upon her, would flow in draughts like that to which Miss Jenks referred as ‘Your lovely supply, dear.’ So far it hadn’t…

Why did no one expect Jack to change, to undergo automatic metamorphosis into a father? He liked the baby. He was tender, pragmatic about sick and shit, did his stuff. Pulled his weight, as [his father] later noted with pride … But no one expected that paternity would alter him in any fundamental way, would enrol him as a life member in a world-wide organization in which he had no wish to serve.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife won the 1992 Wattie Award and has been reprinted multiple times. It may be one of her most loved books, for its portrait of a changing country and a couple changing along with it. It was followed in 1993 by All the Nice Girls, set in 1962, which clearly uses Anderson’s experiences as a naval wife to further explore the struggles of an increasingly liberated woman in a male-dominated society.

The House Guest, published in 1995, is Anderson’s first novel with a male protagonist. Like Anderson herself, Robin Dromgoole shifts from zoology to literature, and part of the novel is a literary quest. Robin has decided to write his thesis on Alice O’Leary, a (fictional) little-known American novelist who produced several searing novels, moved to New Zealand, married a farmer, and stopped writing. Robin is convinced he knows what happened, imagining the husband as a brute who kept his wife from her work. The truth is more complicated than that, of course, and turns out to be closer to home than he’d ever imagined. And meanwhile, Anderson creates a complex society of women surrounding Robin. The “only son of a widowed mother,” Robin becomes an early widower himself, and one of the most poignant parts of the novel is its many depictions of grief—for Robin, for his dead wife’s mother, for Alice O’Leary’s surviving husband, among others.

One gets the sense that Anderson spent her years as a teacher, lab worker, and navy wife listening closely and storing things away, and also that Anderson was nothing if not game. She was able to use her long perspective to add depth to her work, but she also was clearly open to new experiences. A key scene in The House Guest takes place at a heavy metal concert, and Anderson writes in her autobiography that she was determined to attend one herself to gather detail. Her husband refused to accompany her, so Anderson corralled a colleague. When he came to fetch her at her office at 10:30, he was surprised to find her asleep on the floor, she reports. Nevertheless, she “enjoyed the evening immensely,” and she got her details:

A thin guy scrambled on the stage in front of the bass guitar, dashed across the stage, was chased by a man so tough, so beautiful, so trained to kill that Robin’s heart moved…. The crowd roared their support for the diver. The bouncer was stripped to the waist, a double-headed eagle tattoo moved between his shoulder blades as he ran, his trousers were rolled to the knee, his hands encased in leather mittens, his head cropped … Stooped, effective and hard as nails, he tossed the flyer through swirling gas onto the pogoers and slammers below. The crowd shifted, supported the arms and legs and head for a moment before the diver sank, disappeared, went with the flow and surfaced.

There are many pleasures in reading Barbara Anderson, but what a reader might notice first is her quickness of spirit, her leaps of language. Anderson is not a writer who tarries. She jumps in and takes you with her. You might be at the first staff meeting of the year at the Girls High, where “the less experienced members of the staff as Miss Tamp calls them, Carmen, Sooze, Margot and Jenni Murphy who is vegan, sit at the other end of the table. It is a large kauri table donated by Mr. Smythe, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, when the kids flew the nest and Grace and I moved into the penthouse. Miss Franklin calls it Le Nid.” You might be at the posthumous book launch for Jack Macalister’s final novel, when Sarah Tandy meets Penny Broad for the first time in decades: “Sarah looked at the small nugget figure, the eager animated face, the bush of black hair. She had found her husband and Penny locked together at the bottom of a cliff at Anawhata in 1969 just before she and Jack went to England. ‘Your frock’s the colour of artichoke soup,’” Sarah tells her. Anderson flings information at you and trusts you will stay with her, that you will trust her enough to know it will all eventually make sense. And it does.

Anderson crammed a whole lifetime into 20 years as a writer, and apparently enjoyed every minute. And in a fitting tribute to a woman who wrote about the difficulty of balancing art and life—perhaps a fair swap over a long marriage—Anderson’s husband retired at the age of 56 from his naval career, just as her writing career was taking off. For the next 20 years he typed every one of her manuscripts, listening to cricket on the radio while Anderson spun her stories in another room.

Bloom Post End

Sue Dickman’s essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She lives in Western Massachusetts and blogs at A Life Divided.

Homepage photo credit: View of Hawke’s Bay region, New Zealand via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Barbara Anderson, Unavoidably Detained

  1. Pingback: IN HER OWN WORDS: Barbara Anderson | Bloom

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s