By Shonagh Koea
Random House, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Jennifer Wittig

THE NAME Shonagh Koea will undoubtedly not resonate with readers as much as it perhaps should. Indeed Koea’s contribution to New Zealand literature has been notable for its patience; over the past eighteen years she has contributed seven novels, two short story collections and one non-fiction endeavour as part of her growing portfolio.

Koea was first introduced to me during my secondary schooling, when my English teacher saw my hunger for the written word and gave me an old copy of Sing to me Dreamer to read for extra credits. Granted, I did not understand much of Koea’s vivid imagery, and her elegant writing style was completely lost on me, but that particular story has always stayed with me. Now, with a few more years behind me, I have often revisited that story, and not only for the gentle giant that roams the main character’s backyard, but because Koea has a quality to her writing that’s not only hard to grasp but also hard to pass up.

Upon starting to read her latest offering, her memoirs entitled The Kindness of Strangers, I thought that her chosen style of recipes mixed in with her memoirs would soon seem contrived. Surprisingly enough, the recipes between the pages simply strengthen her memories of the past. They make sense, offering the reader cornerstones to the relationships Koea formed, the moods that shaped her, or propelled her to the kitchen, and the occasions that were marked as special.

The most poignant chapter comes with her relationship to the local doctor, Dr Walker and his love for chocolate cakes. In that chapter we are shown one of Koea’s quintessential characteristics – she does not find it easy to talk to many people, nor in fact does she seem the type to be surrounded by many people. In this sense, Koea embodies the notion that writing is a lonely and isolated art, which at times offers little support, and, more importantly, that there is nothing wrong with being an isolated character in society.

“It was better to stay away and be a mystery rather than be exposed and made ridiculous. I think now that it was good training for a writer, and that is all I ever wanted to be, because I learnt early the art of withdrawal and observation. It was very necessary then to know how to hide literally, and to watch for trouble. I learnt how to exist in some sort of sphere that was not the usual one, and how to be by myself. A writer’s life is different and isolated because to write you must be alone. It is a solitary life and I learnt solitariness early. I am glad of that now.”

Upon looking through Koea’s body of work, most of her literary characters have been socially isolated, and I think this derives from Koea drawing much of her characters from herself. In her memoirs she often quotes large sections out of her books that reiterate her own feelings, her own emotions, fusing her to her character’s identity.

Only a short book at 187 pages, The Kindness of Strangers at times had me wriggling in my seat, urging Koea to get on with those details that I most wanted to know about – her husband, her parents, her son – and that impatience never abated. That satisfaction of knowing it all never arrives at the end of the book. Koea reveals her life not in a linear fashion, but with small clues and hints that are intermittent throughout her book, such as how her style in clothing changed after her husband died. I felt embarrassed for Koea when she revealed that she’d had speech problems and I was captivated by the character called Breanski the Leprechaun, which she invented for her son, who would deliver secret gifts to him.

I had hoped to see a different side of Koea with this book, to pull up the curtain of her carefully constructed life in order to come to some new plane of understanding. Instead I found what I had always known: Koea is what you see, though somehow you always think she’s holding something back, and gently smiling to herself.