Casting Off, A memoir (vol. 2) by Elspeth Sandys.
Dunedin: OUP (2017).
RRP: $35. Pb, 16pp photos, 224pp.
Reviewed by Janet Wainscott.
Elspeth Sandys has written eight novels, numerous short stories and plays for radio and television. In recent years she has turned her hand to memoir, beginning with What Lies Beneath, an exploration of her search for her birth parents and her upbringing as an adopted child. Casting Off covers a span of close to three decades, from the early 1960s through to the late 1980s, a time spent mostly in England where she pursues a career initially as an actor and then as a writer.
‘I am a fiction writer,’ Sandys says. ‘This does not mean what I am writing here will be fiction, though inevitably much of it will be.’ She discusses the elusive nature of memory and how memories are ‘shaped by facts, but not defined by them.’ She stresses that this book is not an autobiography, and then adds, ‘But it is not fiction either.’ Before a reader can ask whether it is it fiction or not, Sandys supplies the answer: it is memoir. She assures the reader that she will ‘try to stay true to the facts, avoiding invention but guided . . . by imagination.’
In What Lies Beneath, Sandys pushed the boundaries of memoir when she re-creates conversations and scenes that took place before she was born, but in Casting Off she takes a more conventional approach by examining and reimagining her own experience. Sandys has the memoirist’s skill of moving smoothly between recollection and reflection.
Casting Off begins just before Sandys’ marriage at the age of 19. She and her husband soon depart for England and just as her acting career starts to gather momentum, the couple return to New Zealand. Divorce follows and Sandys becomes a solo parent. She remarries and returns to England with her actor husband. The couple eventually move to a Cotswold village where they entertain a succession of house guests from the world of books and theatre and Sandys navigates the intricacies of village life and social class.
The backdrop of Casting Off is the larger political and social changes of the era in England – the grimness of the early 1960s, the tumult of the later 1960s and 1970s followed by the Thatcher years. Although Sandys comments on political and social issues, she is at her most compelling when addressing her real subject: her search for identity, finding her place in the world and working as a writer. She balances her description of this progression as a novelist and scriptwriter with reflections on the role of imagination and the relationship between the lived life and fiction.
This memoir is understated and repays close reading. Sandys can say a great deal in wry asides. She tells us, for instance, that she does not believe in closure. Perhaps closure is not necessary or even useful for someone who is truly prepared to live an ‘examined life’.
Janet Wainscott lives near Christchurch. She writes poetry and essays and her writing has been published in takahē, bravado and Shot Glass Journal (US).