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by Sue McCauley

'The whole country is living on borrowed money': a long-awaited novel surveys one family's changing fortunes in the 80s and 90s.

By March 31, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

In 2010 the New Zealand Review of Books published an excerpt from the novel Afterwards, a ‘work in progress’ by novelist Sue McCauley. It began with a woman named Briar, preparing for her husband’s funeral, contemplating, with a detachment that even she found curious, the requirements of flowers, food, houseguests, ‘choice of cemetery, Brewer’s bodily presence…’  The excerpt was funny and sad: honest, circumspect and deeply humane.

Then – silence. As McCauley told the magazine Shepherdess last year, after submitting a version of the book to her previous publishers, she found they ‘didn’t get what I was trying to do.’ But a decade later, as McCauley approached her 80th birthday, the manuscript – under the new title of Landed – was shortlisted for the Michael Gifkins Prize and subsequently picked up by Bateman Books.

Landed begins in 1986 and takes up the story of 63-year-old Briar Howland; her three grown children; and her two husbands – one sidling out of her life years earlier, never to be seen again; the other, after 28 years together, dying inside his flash car with the windows shut tight.

Just two men in Briar’s life and now both have removed themselves without prior discussion or warning. What does that say about her? Both had been men with plenty to say when it suited them, but neither had bothered to leave her a note. A sentence. A single kind word.

McCauley doesn’t waste time in her storytelling. In the novel’s very first paragraph, police officer Andre is knocking at Briar’s door in Timaru to inform her of Brewer Howland’s suicide: ‘A dark blue Mercedes, a clean-shaven ‘older’ man in light-coloured trousers and a teal blue shirt (Pierre Cardin, it matched his eyes). It could only be Brewer.’

Briar is helpful, polite, self-conscious – ‘It seems important that the policeman should think well of her’ ­– but knows ‘hers was not a normal bereavement’. On the phone to her daughter, Rachel, Briar describes Brewer’s death as an accident. The truth, she tells herself, ‘seemed too weighty and dreadful’.

Soon her children are on their way, from Auckland, Wellington and Nelson, all ‘grown up, yet still competing, still incomplete; as if there was something about their childhood, about the quality of her mothering …’. Her brother Callum and wife Edith drive down for the funeral from Glenmorrin, the family farm, in North Canterbury (but ‘can’t stay on, not in the middle of lambing’) and sister Viv – ‘I’m formidably helpful’ – arrives, annoying Callum in her confident, urban, left-leaning certainty.

Without a real-life measure of what to do or how to behave in such a situation, Briar – indecisive, distracted, self-doubting – ‘would observe her own reactions anxiously, yet with interest. As if some day this information may be of use, perhaps to a researcher or novelist.’ Her younger son is shocked that Briar knows nothing of Brewer’s financial records or investments, or his crippling debt, or the fact that they’ve been ‘living on borrowed money while interest rates spiralled out of control’.

Over the following pages we see Briar pre-Brewer, a school-leaver falling for the Irish charm of Harry McGale, giving birth to a stillborn son – ‘Possibly for the best,’ her mother says – then, as a mother of two, trying to cope with her feckless husband. She should have left, Briar thinks now, ‘but back then women put up with stuff. Well, most of them did. Especially those, like Briar, with kiddies. No state support then for single parents.’ Briar, she reasons, lacked ‘courage in confronting life’, but after Harry leaves, she ‘came to think of his disappearance as a favour he’d done her’.

Briar post-Brewer is alone and unsure. ‘It seems to me,’ she tells Viv, ‘there’s very little I do know and the older I get the more unknowing I seem to be.’ Why would her insurance-company manager husband keep borrowing to fund a lifestyle far beyond Briar’s expectations? Why didn’t he declare bankruptcy? What side of the bed should she sleep on? (‘Both sides are Briar’s side now’.)

Her older son Tim offers to build a granny flat for Briar on his property in Wellington. Basket-weaving, yoga-practising Rachel, with her ready provision of brandy and Rescue Remedy, suggests a ‘temporary’ stay at her house in Nelson. Martin, her wealthy youngest child, father to smart, spirited Francesca, offers to buy a little apartment ‘on the Shore’ or in Nelson.

As Briar tells herself, they want to save her from being alone. This is the ‘afterwards’ cited in the novel’s original title, where Briar’s past returns to her ‘in gusts of sadness and longing’, and she weeps ‘sneakily, like a cracked jug’. She sells the ‘grandiose’ family home with its ‘landscaped garden, the high Ōamaru stone walls that ensured privacy’, and moves into an ‘unlovely’ small unit, its tiny garden planted with designer primroses ‘gaudy as lipsticks’. She gets a dog – Honda, the Labrador-cross rescue dog, who ‘settles in like a sigh’. And Briar increases her days working at the local book shop from two to four-and-a-half each week, earning five dollars an hour. Co-worker Alisa writes up a pros-and-cons of leaving her own husband of nine years. The score is even, she tells Briar, ‘but I haven’t really got into the afterwards stuff. How well I’d cope.’

Briar is a fan of the American author Anne Tyler, and her navigation of the ‘afterwards stuff’ suggests many of Tyler’s middle-class, middle-aged characters, politely extricating themselves, like Celia Grinstead in Ladder of Years, from a life dictated by marriage and parenthood.

Just as Tyler embeds her characters in an identifiable but changing suburban America, so Briar’s story is unmistakably New Zealand in the 1980s. Geoff Robinson hosts Morning Report on Radio New Zealand; gay men blink in the sudden light of homosexual law reform; GST and the internet arrive.

The stock market collapses; Tim loses his public-service job and can’t find another. Rachel’s ‘life is hand-to-mouth’ until she gets a job ‘teaching life skills to the chronically unemployed’. Callum sells off part of the family land to improve cash flow. As the country dives into the chilling waters of economic liberalisation, overseas multimillionaires snap up chunks of rural land, farmers grapple with the loss of state support payments, names like Ron Brierley and Allan Hawkins tumble with ‘reverential admiration’ from Martin’s lips: ‘No mention, not even a hint, that a superabundance of wealth and luxury might perhaps be cause for bad conscience’.

It wasn’t natural, Briar decides, ‘the way families had to live scattered all over the country, all over the world’. She takes a road trip to visit her children and grandchildren. Is she a good grandmother? She gives herself a 4 out of 10. Has she been a good mother? She remembers how to preserve figs, she can recite at least half the poems in Now We Are Six, and yet she cannot remember what her daughter does for a living. ‘What kind of mother is that?’ She wants to apologise to them all – for not remembering, for not being there. ‘It’s a condition – congenitally apologetic. Women of my generation are particularly prone.’

She embarks on a trip to Scotland, ancestral home of her mother’s family. This is her ‘first international flight without Brewer’, and she feels anxious leaving the country with ‘things unsorted’, and it feels like ‘leaving your house with the floors unswept, the sink full of dirty dishes’. In Scotland, on a tour bus, she ‘searches in vain for heather’ and waits ‘for her heart to leap in subliminal recognition’ of the countryside. Instead all Briar feels is ‘a sharp stab of longing for the hills of North Canterbury’. There’s no regret in leaving early, in returning to New Zealand for another family funeral.

McCauley’s first novel Other Halves (1982) exposed the racism she witnessed as a Pākehā woman in her relationship with Pat, a younger, Māori man. In Landed Briar recognises the prejudice running through her childhood years. She recalls her teacher describing the Māori Wars ‘as if they were an unpleasant infection that might break out at any time’, as if the four young Te Ata children ‘weren’t sitting there looking up at the teacher, or burying their faces in their bent arms’.

 Landed makes further use of McCauley’s personal story. McCauley was 63 – the same age as Briar at the beginning of the novel – when she and her husband Pat returned to the 160-hectare sheep and beef farm where she grew up in the Waitahora Valley, east of Dannevirke. As she told Shepherdess, ‘It’s for family, and it might last forever, or nearly’.

Briar’s story does not align completely with McCauley’s: the place she finds by the end of the novel is a homecoming of a different kind. But in its clarity and insightfulness, Landed tells a nuanced and beautifully crafted story of family, longing, regret and hope; of social change; all pulled into the tentative course of Briar’s ‘afterwards’.

Landed: A Novel

by Sue McCauley

Bateman Books

ISBN: 9781776890576

Published: April 2023

Format: Paperback, 296 pages

Sally Blundell

Sally Blundell is a journalist, writer and reviewer based in Ōtautahi Christchurch.