Iris Wilkinson, penname Robin Hyde, was a New Zealand novelist, poet and journalist of the 1920s and 1930s. She survived heartbreak, loss, childbirth, and a warzone in China to die young in England. In Paula Morris’s words, she was a ‘daughter, sister, friend, lover, mother. Nobody’s girlfriend, nobody’s wife.’ She left behind her a rich body of work, and it is her unusual life that has inspired writer Morris, and photographer Haru Sameshima, to follow her footsteps around New Zealand and catch a glimpse of the ‘wraith’.
Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde is first and foremost an artist’s book. It is the engagement of these two twenty-first century artists with Hyde, her work and her person. It is introspective, with Morris delving into her own past and memories just as she delves into biography and autobiographies. Those familiar with Robin Hyde’s works and life will enjoy the book most, though it is unlikely to offer any new surprises about who she was. It might also serve to pique the interest of those who are unfamiliar with Hyde – there are numerous references to well-known books, and some excerpts from her autobiography and poems. These are well-chosen and not overwhelming. The path for the reader is well laid out. Morris’s prose is conversational and easy to read. She covers Hyde’s history while bringing us ever back to the present.
The book itself is beautifully made and filled with New Zealand landscapes, photographs of empty rooms, and views out windows, never people, and never Hyde herself, as though inviting us to join in the hunt for the ghost while capturing her elusiveness. A yellow canvas spine adds a touch of texture to the cover photographs, on the front a birch grove in the grounds of Queen Mary Hospital in Hamner Springs, and on the back, stairs to the attic of the ‘Lodge’, a hospital in Avondale, Auckland, where Hyde engaged in much of her writing. The book is divided into eight unnamed parts, with a photograph for each page of text.
For me, one of the most evocative parts of the book was the photo of the windows of this attic, seen through the branches of a tree, juxtaposed with Hyde’s own comment the day she left there, that she “didn’t look backwards at the attic windows, though there, unless they burn the house down or blow it up, a face will dwell forever, my own face looking out.”
This is a lovely book, one to ponder over, and read in a quiet space that gives you time to think.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Massey University Press, RRP $45