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These Two Hands: New Edition by Renée

One of Aotearoa’s most treasured writers, I was pleased when powerhouse Renée finally published her memoir, These Two Hands, in 2017. She was eighty-eight, so the story had 88 ‘patches’ like a quilt, one for every year of the life she has lived so far. This new edition has ninety-one. This new edition also benefits from an index, making this a wonderful resource for looking up details of Renée ’s life.

A true inspiration, Renée published her first play at 50 and has been busy ever since. Vowing never to retire and never to stop pushing herself creatively, her first crime novel, The Wild Card, was published in 2019 – she was 90 – and was a Ngaio Marsh Awards finalist.

Other accolades include being awarded an ONZM for services to literature and drama, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, the Playmarket Award for a significant artistic contribution to theatre, and Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka for a lifetime contribution to toi Māori.

Born in 1929, with a whakapapa that is Ngāti Kahungunu, Scots and Cape Verdean, after her father killed himself, Renée was raised by her single mother who taught her to read to keep her occupied, but couldn’t afford to keep her in education. Thus Renée left school to start work at twelve. A fact that reminds us just how different life was then. Aged fifty, Renée started writing plays, novels and poetry. Her 1984 play, Wednesday To Come, placing women at the centre of the story, is one of her most well-known works.

Renée’s is fascinating story, told well. As much as it is a personal story of one woman’s becoming – a feminist, a writer, a lesbian – it is a treasure of New Zealand history, and how far we have come as a nation and changed over the past nine decades. The consummate storyteller she is, Renée does not tell us everything that happened, and the story does not unfold in order.

The ‘patches’ range freely back and forth in time, and are easy to dip in and out of. They cover the macro and the micro – such as the small pleasures of her garden, writing, the hunger march by unemployed workers in 1934, and other historic events. This is not a story packed with salacious gossip, and she is generous and sensitive with her telling, knowing that she is talking here about real people and is ever mindful of her impact on them or their families. Nor does the story employ a scrap of self-pity, just Renée being her vibrant and pragmatic self.

Life affirming, entertaining and informative, These Two Hands provides us with a picture of what it is to have a life well lived. Describing a move from central Wellington to Ōtaki in 2008, she writes: ‘I didn’t look back at the apartment. I never do. I don’t seek or suffer that kind of regret.’

These Two Hands is an intensely enjoyable read. And it is a delight to get three more ‘patches’ in These Two Hands: New Edition.

Reviewer: Heidi North

Makaro Press