JUMPING SHIP, by Glenn Colquhoun; HOW TO LIVE ELSEWHERE, by Harry Ricketts; ON READING, by Lydia Wevers (Four Winds Press, all $14.95).
The latest three New Zealand essays in the series edited by Lloyd Jones are all love stories of a sort - and like the best love stories, they succeed because they allow us access to a private world.
At the beginning of Glenn Colquhoun's Jumping Ship, the sea is described as being "as full and ripe as our skin the first time we kissed", but on the very next page any hint that this is a traditional boy-meets-girl tale is quashed: the person with whom the young Pakeha author falls in love is Aunty Rongo, an 80-year-old Maori woman.
Colquhoun's easy, comfortable tone gives the writing a pleasing fluidity - it moves from historical accounts of Pakeha who chose to join Maori communities, to a wonderful description of Aunty Kare, a preacher in Colquhoun's small adopted town, who delivers her passionate sermons whether anybody comes to church or not. These digressions are love stories, too - the Europeans who "jumped ship" and lived as Pakeha Maori fell in love with a different way of life; Aunty Kare "is in love with" God.
Every digression is concerned with breaking tradition in some way, with jumping ship. It's fascinating, for instance, to read of Tim Healy, a contemporary Pakeha Maori - but we are not presented with his story for entertainment alone. As Colquhoun says of Healy, "We are of the same tribe, not properly Pakeha, not properly Maori ... we have both fallen in love with the same girl." This simplicity is characteristic of his style. Like his poetry, Colquhoun's prose is playful, warm and satisfying. The saying quoted by another "aunt" could apply to the essay itself: "The kumara does not say how sweet it is."
Harry Ricketts also explores what it means to inhabit somewhere "other". How to Live Elsewhere presents glimpses of his life at various stages, and gradually we realise that places other than "home" - in this case, England - are, ironically, those most familiar to the writer.
As a child, Ricketts was packed off to boarding school: "School became real life, and home became the Lake District Narnia we escaped to ... This appeared to suit some boys. They felt reassured by the routine, the rituals, the rules ... Some boys liked the sport, and life at school was certainly easier if you were good at games. Some boys must have had unhappy home lives, and for them it was school which offered the escape." Ricketts doesn't need to say that he felt lonely and homesick; the repetition of "some boys" achieves this with admirable restraint.
The following is equally effective: "It was left to my mother to stay in England till the start of summer term 1958, take me to my new school, say goodbye, and fly to Hong Kong to join my father. The flight, which then took two days with multiple stops, must have been very hard for her." Again, by deflecting attention from himself, we sense his isolation all the more deeply.
The essay weaves these personal moments with the intellectual and the academic, moving from Ovid to Adcock to cricket to a couple of hilarious gaffes as a lecturer in Hong Kong. This drifting quality, this impression that the writing is looking for a place to settle, is perfect for the subject matter.
Like Jumping Ship, Ricketts's essay is also a non-traditional love story. In the author's shifting world, it is books, literature, to which he always returns, and this is where the quiet ardour of the work lies: books "could transport you to a self-contained world ... it was that sense of a whole other world - safe, unchanging, reassuring - which kept drawing me back".
Lydia Wevers's essay On Reading, on the other hand, shimmers with the fever of one madly and unapologetically in love. Its twitchy energy accurately describes the author's passion, her compulsive need for the written word. There is a confessional tone to the writing that invites us in - we learn with secret relief of a long list of books this talented academic has not read, and few readers will fail to identify with her account of "illicit reading" as a child: "I spent a number of furtive summer mornings tucked into my oldest brother's red and white Anglia which had in the glovebox a copy of Return to Peyton Place, a novel I knew my mother would not let me read."
The desire to consume a book is beautifully rendered in one of Wevers's most delightful confessions. As a girl, she tells us with guilty glee, if she particularly liked a book belonging to the Masterton Public Library, she "felt compelled to physically consume a piece of it, just a neatly torn-off corner here and there, especially if the paper stock was thick and fibrous and matt".
This wish to make a favourite book part of your very flesh - to devour a story - is something any truly addicted reader will recognise. On Reading is a story one does not want to leave - it transports us to what Wevers brilliantly calls "the bright obsessing otherworld the reader inhabits".