Iris and Me – book review

Iris and Me, by Philippa Werry

This is a terrific story about a tenacious woman who, in the 1930s, leaves New Zealand with no support and very little cash and reports on a war in China. It’s intelligent young adult fiction (though I don’t qualify as either and I loved it). Despite speaking no Chinese language, having no official capacity, being slightly lame and needing a walking stick, Iris gets right to the front-line and writes on the conditions she finds there. This is Iris Wilkinson, pen name Robin Hyde, who was a New Zealand poet, journalist and novelist. I knew her from her books; I read The Godwits Fly recently, but I had no idea she was such an audacious traveller as well.

I don’t know whether to do a spoiler alert here – it is not much of a spoiler but it is fun to unravel… OK, I won’t, but it’s something that makes the story very compelling. The narrator is a brilliant choice.

This is the story
of a long journey
and a true friend

The true friend is the ‘me’ of the title and this friend is loyal and steadfast and goes everywhere with Iris, observing and telling us the truth of this determined woman’s life. You’ll guess fairly early on. There is no other companion– there are friends who help and support (or hinder) Iris from time to time, but this is an admirably independent woman, long before that was considered a good thing.

I should mention the story is written in verse. Werry has taken all the unnecessary stuff out of a prose account of Iris’s journey and rearranged the remaining words elegantly, in short bites, with lots of white space on the page where pictures can form. It’s a delightful way to read.

Iris is on a trip by ship and train to England through the East and across Russia – an exotic trip in the 1830s by any standard – but gets side-tracked by the war in China. “Chance is the lovely lord of any journey.” she says. How right she was. I like her outlook on life.

Iris is a poet and so her ‘friend’ is too, and the the observations spice every page.

In the villages where Chinese soldiers were billeted,
women spun cotton inside their houses
or worked bent over in the fields
– all the men had gone to war –
and children stared with wide eyes,
toting babies on their backs,
sticks of sugar canes clutched in small grubby hands.
Wisteria, jasmine and honeysuckle twined
among the banyan trees. I always like to look
at things that support other things.

The story goes back into past events. Things happened, Iris hid them, she coped. She writes, finding her way as a journalist in a man’s world, given the social and women’s events to cover, fighting to earn her way.

It was the Depression. All workers
has to pay an unemployment tax:
one shilling in the pound.
Women had to pay it,
but if they lost their jobs
they didn’t get the unemployment benefit.

We forget sometimes how difficult life was for women before the liberation movement produced (and is still producing) significant changes, how hard it was to be independent less than a hundred years ago.

Iris tells us. Eventually it all becomes too much and the ending seems inevitable.

That’s how it is.
Some stay. Some leave.

There’s a big story in this little poetical book. It’s a kind and careful description of a woman’s terrible struggle, told with an empathy for the subject that, unfortunately, was lacking for Iris during her short life.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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