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Posted on 9 May 2024 in Non-Fiction | 0 comments

MARY GARDEN My Father’s Suitcase. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Mary Garden’s memoir reveals her physical and mental abuse at the hands of her sister – and an extraordinary case of plagiarism.

Mary Garden has written a fascinating and brutally frank memoir of her troubled relationship with her sister and the impact it has had on her life and her relationship with her family.

Garden is a seasoned writer and memoirist, and the story flows like autofiction, building to a marvellous denouement. I was gripped by the last chapters, which revolve around her sister’s publication of a cut-and-paste hagiography of their father barely a year after publication of Garden’s own memoir of him, Sundowner of the Skies.

Garden’s family history is quite intense. Her father was a very difficult man with an interesting history as a pioneering aviator. After retiring as a pilot he appears to have been unsettled and the family moved around New Zealand a lot. He was a remote, stern and austere figure. Mary’s mother had her own secrets and deferred to his moods and eccentricities. Mary was the eldest sister and, from her account, the responsible one, expected to suffer for the sake of the younger Anna. Garden relates her sister’s behaviour, including physical violence and psychological abuse. This behaviour was ignored by her parents and her brother, leaving Mary feeling isolated and confused. Garden writes movingly of these years, her sister’s mental illness and her parents’ deep desire to protect Anna’s secret at the expense of Mary’s sanity.

I bet Mum and my aunts and others often chatted about my sister and me over cups of tea. I can see them rolling their eyes, shaking their heads and sighing ‘What a shame they don’t get on.’ Perhaps I overheard them say something like that. I’d wince when someone would say to me, ‘It’s a pity you aren’t friends with your sister.’ Robert would have felt the same. He was friends with everyone.

Garden looks back on her life in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s in a detached and clinical way, exploring her family’s behaviour and her own reactions. She researches her past, reaching out to witnesses for their accounts as well as consulting experts on sibling abuse. Nonetheless, her grief and emotion are palpable on these pages. At times this can be harrowing, but it is impossible to disengage from, and I found myself considering the dynamics of my own family and examining my own choices when faced with similar provocations.

Garden was a bolter. She ran as soon as she could and went off and lived her own life in Australia away from the abuse of her sister and the indifference of her parents. But family has a strong pull, and time and again Garden went back as she struggled with the issues from her childhood. As she recounts these episodes I wanted to call out to her, Don’t do it! Don’t go there! Best leave it alone! – conscious that I was aligning myself with her brother’s attitude. But Garden is made of sterner stuff, with a capacity to get up each time she is knocked down and continue fighting for her right to have her point of view acknowledged by her immediate family.

Dad died in hospital, in the early morning of 2 June,1997, dying in character: no one was with him. My daughter and I flew over to Auckland just hours later. We were the only ones with Mum that first day. My sister was on a plane, flying out from England, and my brother would arrive a day later, as his partner had broken her leg orienteering in the Manawatu.

Fortunately, Dad had gifted his body to medical science so there was to be no funeral. Rather than being sad, Mum was relieved he had finally gone and hoped she might have some peace at last. That night I had panic attacks and heart palpitations at the thought of seeing my sister the next day after such a long period without contact. In tears I told Mum I would change my tickets and go back home early. She wasn’t upset with me. I think that she almost got it, my fear of my sister

In the final chapters Garden recounts the battle with Anna over their memories of their father a year after the publication of Sundowner of the Skies:

There was an email from one of my Garden cousins to say she thought an online article on Stuff ’would be of interest’. I clicked on the link and it took me to an excerpt from a book:
Oscar Garden: A Tale of One Man’s Love of Flying. The author, Dr Annamaria Garden. Anna!

I felt like I had been punched in the head and was suddenly disoriented and dizzy, as if I was going to pass out …

Garden lays out this story of plagiarism in the final chapters. From her initial visceral reaction to the sheer horror of her family’s betrayal, their willingness to gaslight her in order to shelter Anna, Garden’s steely determination to defend her book is engrossing. She discusses recent similar cases of plagiarism in Australia and New Zealand, and her account of her legal battle to have her sister’s book withdrawn is fascinating.

This is a raw and compelling memoir as well as an interesting slice of social history. I was captivated by the detail of life in New Zealand in the years that Garden was growing up. My Father’s Suitcase is well researched and elegantly written by an author with admirable strength of character.

Mary Garden My Father’s Suitcase 2024 PB 288pp $34.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian and you can find him as @larrydlibrarian on Instagram and Threads.

You can buy My Father’s Suitcase from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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