BOOK REVIEW / Portrait of the artist as a grandma: Marianne Brace talks to Barbara Anderson, an acute novelist with a frisky style

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The kettle is slow to boil. 'Oh come along darling,' murmurs the woman standing by it, in a tone of exasperated encouragement. She is tall, calm, grey-haired and charming - even, it seems, to kettles.

Barbara Anderson, New Zealand novelist and naval wife, notices everything. It's a trait which characterises her collection of short stories, I Think We Should Go Into the Jungle, and her novels Girls High, Portrait of the Artist's Wife, and most recently All the Nice Girls (Cape, pounds 14.99). Anderson's acute observation comes, partly, from her scientific training. Science has 'informed my work from the point of view that everything is of interest.'

Sharp and clear, Anderson's writing is also marked by a vibrancy which has brought the critics out in hyperlatives. ('I've already been accused of thinking I'm Flaubert,' she says wryly.) When Dan Franklin at Secker & Warburg read the Girls High manuscript, he thought it was written by a thirtysomething. Anderson was 64.

It must be niggling for Anderson to be paraded as another Mary Wesley, a late-bloomer who writes about sex and has characters shouting 'You fucked my wife]'. Some people 'were shocked' by Girls High, with its staff-room cast juggling lovers, colleagues and friends. 'They thought it was very rude and the language was a bit off. That doesn't fuss me,' says Anderson looking crisp and cool in her pink shirt and glittering rings. 'I have an ear for the vernacular and the New Zealand idiom is quite frisky. I think very seriously before I write; every word counts.'

When Anderson's fine second novel won New Zealand's most prestigious literary award, her local newspaper shrieked: 'Local nana scoops pool]' But why shouldn't grandmothers write with urgency and understanding about life as it is? 'If you find the young interesting, then you're not going to regard them as a foreign species.' More puzzling is why Anderson waited so long to begin.

Her father was a doctor and she was brought up in Hawkes Bay, surrounded by the kind of comfortably-off farming families who feature in Portrait of the Artist's Wife, and who would have considered writing ambitions 'weird.'

'I was a bookish child and would have been more so if I'd had a chance.' Anderson, however, 'wasn't allowed to read during the day unless it was raining. My mother thought one should be outside playing. And at school, the thing to be was athletic, which I'm certainly not.' Set texts were British - 'I didn't even hear about Katherine Mansfield until I left school' - which meant there were two worlds, the real and the fictional. 'A very good Maori writer made the comment that when she was growing up there were no books which related to her experience. I could say the same. All these pictures of jolly little fat children holding up starfish by one leg - it was very different from our beach. For someone of my age, to read about a street in your area that you knew as a child . . . well, it never happened.'

Anderson took a science degree and ended up teaching - 'which I loathed.' Girls High drew on that experience. In this bright and moving 'discontinuous narrative', staff members have their own chapters, each with a humorously dry title (Jenni Murphy thinks about her sexuality; Mrs Hopere thinks about last year's; Mrs Stillburn stops thinking), creating a contents page which is a small narrative in itself.

When Anderson married (her husband Sir Neil Anderson is a former vice-admiral) she worked in a medical laboratory. Thirty years later she took a degree which involved creative writing - 'what I'd always wanted to do. Pathetic, isn't it?' she says of the wait.

The difference between what you want to do and what you actually do clearly interests Anderson. Portrait of the Artist's Wife follows Sarah (a painter) and her husband Jack (a writer) over 40-odd years, through their clashes with their work and with each other. Both want creative independence. 'When a woman had a child it was assumed that her husband would get on with his career and she would have to struggle twice as hard if she wanted both.' Sarah paints, however, because she must.

'So many women have written with babies crawling around. I never could,' says Anderson. She lacked confidence and was too busy 'coping'. With her husband away at sea 'I used to fling myself into some impossible project like making duffel coats because that meant I was achieving something.' This world of coping is the focus of All the Nice Girls. A more conventional, less ambitious novel than her others it is a 'sort of sailor's wife's tale' set in 1962. The girls are those women who run their families while their men are absent but who, on their husbands' return, find themselves asking, 'Shall I clean my teeth now, darling?' They belong to a time when there was 'absolute loyalty to one's husband's profession, fussing about the dead flowers in the foyer of his committee room.'

The restraints, the expectations, are imposed by the wives themselves. 'I was always very aware of the censure . . . well, not censure, because I always behaved so nicely. I was such a wimp.' When Sophie, the heroine, has an affair, it's the naval wives, those memsahibs of the waves, who disapprove. But for Sophie the affair is just a catalyst. ('Why had it taken her so long to wake up? She had been asleep, sound asleep like some bumble- footed child bride dozing her life away in rented naval castles.') We leave her embarking on a new life without husband or lover.

Anderson, who describes herself as a 'very enthusiastic New Zealander', has been accused of cosiness and a lack of 'biculturalism'. But that's missing the point, for she deals with universal themes - love, commitment, self-fulfilment. And her advice to others is unequivocal - 'If you've always wanted to write, then for goodness sake, do]'

(Photograph omitted)

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