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Linda Burgess. Photo/Robert Burgess/Supplied

Someone's Wife: What it was like to be married to an All Black

The essays of Linda Burgess, onetime All Black missus, make for an important memoir.

The choice of Someone’s Wife as a title gives a clue to the thread running through this collection of personal essays. It zips back and forth through the life of author Linda Burgess to present us with, in her words, “a memoir of sorts”.

The title specifically refers to Burgess’ experience in the 1970s of being married to an All Black. In the opening essay, she describes, pointedly and amusingly, how the existence of women barely registered in that world, and when it did, it was resented. In one deftly sketched scene, the wives are refused entry to an after-match function, but told by the official, “moist-eyed with magnanimity”, that they are welcome to help out in the kitchen.

In her subsequent essays, Burgess expands the concept of being “someone’s wife” to encompass all the ways in which women are defined. By giving us insight into various moments in her life, Burgess illuminates what it means to be a daughter, sister, friend, mother and grandmother, to pursue a career and sustain a marriage. There are triumphs as well as upsets, and tributes to trees and Leonard Cohen.

She also shines a light on a period of often intense political change – Burgess is considered a “Women’s Libber”; she and her husband are “total greenies” and anti-apartheid at a time when that was tantamount to setting fire to the silver fern. It portrays a past that may seem very distant to younger readers – was $40 a week really ever a mortgage payment? – but is a vivid reminder of how far our society has come and, yes, how far it has to go.

At the heart of the book is the most personal essay of all, which recounts the cot death of Burgess’ infant son, Toby. The pain of this ripples out into almost every essay, throwing the hurts of the past into relief and giving subsequent stories a kind of urgency, a need to focus on what’s truly important. It is an event that should not rightly be bearable, but Burgess shows that it is possible to reclaim life and joy.

Burgess’ style is as crisp and tart as a fresh apple, with all needless words excised, and yet it sounds exactly as if she is speaking to you. If this becomes an audio book, she must narrate it. The stories may be personal, but the wisdom and compassion of the observations lend this collection an enduring quality, and for its astute, intelligent chronicling of a time in our social and political history, it should be considered a work of national importance.

SOMEONE’S WIFE by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.