Canvas Book Wrap: Notes on Womanhood by Sarah Jane Barnett, The Wrong Woman by JP Pomare, etc.
Sarah Jane Barnett.
How do we articulate our changing bodies? In her new book on femininity, Sarah Jane Barnett confronts body positivity, menopause, parenting and Western beauty standards through seven meaty essays. Elsewhere, check out hot new releases from JP Pomare
crime thriller and meet Marie Cardno, author of witchy romantic comedies. Good reading.
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Notes on Womanhood by Sarah Jane Barnett (Otago University Press, $30). Reviewed by Eleanor Black.
In her personal reflection on what it means to be a middle-aged woman in Aotearoa today, Sarah Jane Barnett traverses rich and interesting territory. She undergoes a hysterectomy and thus loses her ability to have children, a fundamental pillar of womanhood for many. Menopause brings physical changes that are both confronting and surprisingly comforting. Barnett’s father, Nikki, comes out as transgender, undergoing a delicate period of adjustment and exploration as a late teen.
Barnett writes eloquently, with intelligence and sensitivity. It is widely read, drawing on the work of gender theorists, feminists, historians, journalists, anthropologists, novelists and other thinkers; and make interesting connections between them. But her analysis is based on the emotion of being a woman in a changing body. One of the many relevant passages is about a winter jacket that suddenly feels small at the shoulders. Barnett hides away from his family, unsewing the liner and stitching it back together to fit his larger body. She is ashamed.
“My hypocrisy has become evident,” she wrote. “It had been easy to be ‘body positive’ when I lived in a young, thin body. Had my beliefs been wrong? How could I have been so treacherous? All I knew was that the coat ill-fitting was kind of my failure.”
Elsewhere in this collection of seven meaty essays, Barnett writes about becoming the de facto primary carer for her son without ever meaning to, how many women find themselves shouldering the responsibility of managing the lives of all those who live with them. She experiences the push-pull of wanting to do all the chores that come with raising children, but doesn’t want to be expected to do them all, all the time.
She considers Western beauty standards and the fear that comes with aging if you’re female – yes, because you’re closer to death, but also because you lose your power to hold the male gaze. And she talks about how we enact gender, highlighting her own reluctance to lose her “princess hair” and her admiration for Nikki’s courage, having known as a child that she was someone other than she didn’t seem to be.
Ultimately, Barnett comes to an acceptance with the middle phase of life she finds herself in. “I remember what it was like to feel and look younger, but now I’m not that person anymore. Five years from now, I’ll be different again. The present moment passes quickly and in one direction. I watch it pass. Trying to grab it would be as futile as grabbing moving water.”
It is a thoughtful and wise book that rewards patience. Take your time with this.
Michael Bennett’s new novel, a remarkable postcolonial mystery novel, is sure to make many critics’ year-end best lists. The author explains what inspired his new work and why he admires books with both deep humanity and deep pain. Read the full story here.
JUST GOT OUT
If you’re a fan of literary thrillers, you can’t go wrong with Melbourne-based New Zealand writer JP Pomare. Ian Rankin and Michael Robotham both consider themselves fans. In his latest, The Wrong Woman (Hachette, $37), a private detective reluctantly returns to his hometown to investigate a car accident that’s more complicated than it seems.
Tim Saunders runs the family sheep and cattle farm near Palmerston North. Under a Big Sky (Allen & Unwin, $37) follows his 2020 book This Farming Life. In his new book, he recounts how five generations of his family have worked the land – their challenges, their triumphs and their legacy.
Not strictly a new release, Lauren Keenan’s Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time (Huia, $26) was released in March – but is up for an award at the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults on August 10. good luck to all the finalists.
Hundertwasser: “His art and buildings were gifts to humanity”
An excerpt from his book about artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Andreas Hirsch looks at beautiful paths along the spirals of life. Read the full story here.
5 QUICK QUESTIONS WITH MARIE CARDNO
Marie Cardno is a pseudonym. Why use a pen name and is there a meaning to it?
Cardno is my mother’s maiden name. I do other editing work under my real name, so using a pseudonym for my writing allows me to create a mental and (sort of) practical separation between the two. I say “sort of” because, let’s face it, it won’t be too hard for people to make the connection.
This is your first novel. Tell us a bit about what it took to get here?
I’ve been writing since I was a preteen — the usual dozens of faux starts, many written and illustrated with clip art in Microsoft Creative Writer. I always lost interest, momentum and ultimately plot – if I had ever managed to find one – somewhere between the jewel-toned eye-opening description of my main character and the chapter three. In 2015 I started writing seriously and in 2021 the short story How to Get a Girlfriend (When You’re a Terrifying Monster) appeared in Her Magical Pet, a charity anthology raising funds for OutRight Action International, which is fights for the rights of LGBTIQ people. worldwide. The short story was a finalist for the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Short Story/Short Story. Once I started writing about Trillin and Sian, I didn’t want to stop, and this expanded edition is the result.
How would you describe How to Get a Girlfriend (When You’re a Creepy Monster)? And is this the start of a series?
How to Get a Girlfriend is a witchy romantic comedy – it’s the story of a person who has only recently become a person, after untold eons of being a small part of a massive alien consciousness, and who decides the first thing she wants to do as anyone gets to know the strange human who Steve Irwins finds his way into his world. I never wanted it to have a sequel, which of course means I’m currently working on one.
The witches are having a moment. What do you like about witches as characters?
There are so many ways to approach witches in fiction. Do you play the tropes straight, knock them down or pick them up, or do you tell your character to say the hell with that, if they want a witch, I’ll give them a witch? What kind of abilities do they have and how do their abilities shape how they move around the world and interact with others? In fiction, the witches that stand out for me are Terry Pratchett’s witches – fiercely humanistic, heroic selfish, in all their different ways – and the different types of witches in Diana Wynne Jones’ books. The witches of How to Get a Girlfriend probably owe more to the characters of Wynne Jones, with their many, many very human weaknesses, pettiness, and general propensity to rub each other the wrong way. Mine have an extra dose of chaotic stubbornness, better for getting into scrapes.
Who is your ideal reader?
My ideal reader is someone who is looking for something fun and lighthearted and is happy that things immediately take a left turn towards the weird and irreverent.
Marie Cardno’s How to Get a Girlfriend When You’re a Terrifying Monster (Paper Road Press, $20) is out now.