Caroline Barron takes tip from master Norwegian memoirist

Delving into family history, you’re bound to uncover secrets. That’s what alumna Caroline Barron found in researching her memoir.

By Tess Redgrave

Caroline Barron's book is Ripiro Beach: a Memoir of Life After Near Death.
Caroline Barron's book is Ripiro Beach: a Memoir of Life After Near Death.

There is a pivotal scene in Ripiro Beach: a Memoir of Life After Near Death when author Caroline Barron steps out of Fruit World in Richmond Road, Grey Lynn.

As grocery bags crash against her calves, a woman in a Volvo station wagon speeds past in the carpark “so fast”.

“It happens in an instant,” writes Caroline. “Rage springs from the pit of my stomach into my chest, constricting my throat.

“  ‘Slow the f… down!’ I scream – actually scream – my vocal cords clanging.”

The woman in the Volvo looks like she is about to cry. A roadworker in a high-vis vest looks on.

“How could I have lost it like that?” Caroline writes a few paragraphs later. But for many readers, there’s been a similar moment in our lives when we, too, might have asked ourselves: “How could I have been such a bitch?”

In Ripiro Beach, Caroline doesn’t flinch from telling her story – just as it is.

That incident outside Fruit World came during a gruelling personal time for the author, trying to overcome the impact of a near-death experience and loss of her uterus during childbirth; of ongoing grief over her father’s death when she was 20, and of a close friend’s recent, untimely death. She had also been exploring her father’s bloodline (he was adopted) uncovering suicide, brain tumours, heart disease, early death and violence, and a Māori heritage she didn’t know how to open.

“There are too many things to process,” she writes, “so it is easier to remain buried beneath.”

But she doesn’t. As Caroline seeks the medical and wellness help she needs, she travels to Northland to untangle her Māori whakapapa and discovers a physical and spiritual home at Kaipara’s Ripiro (Baylys) Beach. Her journey, and the memoir she is writing in ‘real time’, turns into a story of healing and transformation.

“I see memoir and books in general as a salve, to answer questions, to help me find a way forward,” she says.

I must try my best to tell the truth as deeply as I can.

Caroline Barron, author

If her full email inbox is anything to go by, readers from all around the country have found aspects of her a story a ‘salve’, too.

Tall and lean, Caroline was a teenage model for Maysie Bestall-Cohen, and then in her mid-twenties took over the management of Nova Models & Talent and ran the top agency until 2009.

But writing is her first love. She has kept journals since she was 13 and has a degree in journalism. In 2015, she won a coveted place on the University of Auckland’s Master of Creative Writing (MCW) and worked on a fictionalised account of her father’s conception and adoption.

But it was only once the MCW year was over that Caroline felt an “unbelievable internal force to write memoir”.

As the words “poured out”, she drew on skills learnt during the MCW.

“We had been taught how to close the narrative gap between the reader and the words on the page, which means understanding and going deeply into a character’s point of view.

“With memoir, I am the character.”

As Ripiro Beach neared publication, Caroline admits she did “um and aah a lot” about taking the Fruit World scene out, but felt it had “real resonance”. Her approach was affirmed when in 2018 she did a masterclass with Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgård.

“He said, remember, the closer you get to yourself, the more universal it becomes.”

“I realise this is the key,” writes Caroline at the end of Ripiro Beach. “I must try my best to tell the truth as deeply as I can. For perhaps this is the thing that will connect to the outside world, to other people whom life has also tripped up.”

Ripiro Beach: A Memoir of Life After Near Death, Bateman Publishing, $35

This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Ingenio magazine.