Review: Casting Off by Elspeth Sandys

This review was first published in Landfall Review Online on 1 March 2018.

Elspeth Sandys has had many names. Born Frances Hilton James in 1948, she became Elspeth Sandilands Somerville on the occasion of her adoption into the prominent Dunedin Somerville clan at the age of nine months. The circumstances of her birth and adoption, and their impact on her childhood, were the subject of the first volume of her memoir, What Lies Beneath, published in 2014. 

The second volume, Casting Off, starts with another name change. With her first marriage in late 1960, Elspeth inexplicably took on not only her husband’s surname, but a new first name as well – Susan. ‘Till recently,’ she writes, ‘I believed this new Christian name was given to me by my young sisters-in-law, Elspeth being too much of a mouthful, but they have assured me they had nothing to do with it. So the question of who bestowed the name on me, and why, remains unanswered. As does the question of why I agreed to it …’

Why indeed? As Sandys implies with those ellipses, it seems incredible that someone could change something so fundamental as their own name without a clear understanding of why. Yet from a close reading of both volumes of her memoir, it is perhaps not surprising. Maybe because of the circumstances of her birth and adoption, we get the sense that Sandys’ identity has been highly mutable throughout her life. She has had many names because she has had many selves.

And there were more to come. With the later dissolution of that first marriage she reverted to Elspeth, and (we assume) took on the surname of her second husband, actor Bruce Purchase, when they married in 1970. The adoption of ‘Sandys’ for her pen name came later, and by accident: when her first novel Catch a Falling Star was ready for publication in 1978 she discussed potential pen names over a liquid lunch with her publisher, Anthony Blond. She settled on Elspeth Sand, which she liked for the allusion to George Sand (to whom, as a child, she had liked to imagine herself related). Blond, though, went away thinking they had agreed on ‘Sands’ and added the y himself, without consultation, thinking it more distinguished. Thus Elspeth Sandys the writer was born. Eventually, seeking to escape debt collectors after the end of her marriage to the financially feckless Purchase, she made this her legal name too.

It is ‘Elspeth Sandys’ as she now exists, the legal person, mother, grandmother and author of nine novels, two collections of short stories, numerous plays and adaptations for the BBC and RNZ and scripts for film and television, who turns to examine those earlier selves through the mechanism of memoir. It is, she notes, a process of interrogation: ‘buried in that elusive organ of identity [memory] is the truth I am seeking – the why of events, the extent of my culpability, the difficulty of really knowing another person, the necessity of forgiveness.’

It is evident to Sandys that her younger self was indeed a different person when she excavates the journal she kept when she was 22, recently married, and casting off from New Zealand for a new life in England. Many would recoil at this task. Yet it is not the embarrassing poetry or overemotional prose of youth that disappoints her, but the bland and dutiful record of facts, names and places. The Sandys of 2017 recalls these events with strong emotion, but the journal betrays none of it. She thinks of Ingrid Bergman, ‘who, when asked in an interview how she felt as an older woman looking at a film of her younger self, answered that she recognised the young woman, and acknowledged responsibility for her, but she didn’t really know her. I feel the same way about the person who wrote this dispiriting journal.’ Of course, 22-year-old Sandys was also not yet a writer.

Against the backdrop of her first marriage, a temporary return to New Zealand, her second marriage, the birth of two children (one from each marriage) and more than 20 years in the UK, Casting Off charts how Sandys came to be a writer, as well as her life as a mother and wife. It is a highly self-reflective narrative: the general pattern is for each chapter to begin the description of a new, roughly chronological development, and then to shift into reflection and interpretation – the interrogation of memory of which she speaks early in the book. It ends with the painful dissolution of her second marriage and her return to New Zealand to embark on a relationship with the novelist Maurice Shadbolt. The near final image is of Sandys reaching her arms to Shadbolt at Auckland airport, filled not with love but compassion for the shrunken man on the brink of old age who greets her. I would not be surprised if volume three of these memoirs, charting Sandys’ relationship with Shadbolt, were to emerge in a few years more.

By her own admission in her Author’s Note, ‘This is an incomplete memoir. Out of respect for people close to me I have left large gaps.’ This is her right, of course, but as a selfish reader, unconcerned by the personal relationships Sandys needs to protect, I found myself frustrated by some of these gaps. We know little of how or why her first marriage dissolved, for example, and indeed do not even know her first husband’s name. The birth of her first child, after which ‘everything changes’, goes unremarked upon, as does her second child’s birth, to which we come tantalisingly close, only to be told that ‘what follows is best left unrecorded’. Why? I wanted to shout. Perhaps this was for my own reasons; having recently given birth for the second time, I’m fascinated by others’ accounts of the experience.

At times I also felt distanced from events by Sandys’ reflective narrative voice. In What Lies Beneath, Sandys drew on her skill as a novelist and writer of dialogue to depict some passages ‘in scene’, as she imagined them occurring, taking what she could from documents and interviews and filling in the gaps. When Maggie Rainey Smith reviewed What Lies Beneath in Landfall 226, she was lightly critical of this decision to play a bit fast and loose with the facts, but ultimately concluded that this is the memoirist’s prerogative, as opposed to say, autobiography. In Casting Off, I found myself wishing Sandys had used her novelist’s skill in this way more to convey the feel of events, if not their precise facts.

For whatever reason, Sandys does not spare her second husband Bruce Purchase the way she spares her first. (We can perhaps infer that this is because he was largely the guilty party in the dissolution of their marriage, whereas the first ended at her instigation – another reason to be disappointed at her decision not to ‘go there’.) At the passages evoking the end of this relationship, I put down the book and cheered. Sandys shows, rather than tells, the conversation that cemented the end of the marriage. She picks Bruce up from the airport and drives home to Oxfordshire, stopping at a pub for lunch, during which he manages to choke out that he has been seeing someone else.

‘Something happened in New Zealand,’ he says, after we’ve sat in the murmuring summer silence for a few moments. ‘I know you’ll understand when I explain. You’re such an extraordinary woman. You understand things other people would … well … might anyway … freak out about.’

I raise my eyes. A lone swallow is carving an arc in the sky above me. Its white breast flashes like a butterfly wing against the vast blue of the sky.


‘What happened?’

‘We had coffee. As you do. Got talking. Then – ’

‘You had an affair,’ I say for him.

A sound comes out of his mouth that isn’t a word, but there’s no mistaking what it signals – relief. ‘Knew you’d understand,’ he murmurs.

I look up, but my swallow has gone. The heaviness is still there, but it’s been overlaid by a sense of calm. A warm summer’s day. Lunch in a pub. What could be more normal?

In these passages, the skill of Sandys the novelist is evident, and the emotional weight of the writing is at its most profound.

It’s a bold thing, to ‘go there’ in any form, to interrogate the self and one’s experience of painful events. Of course, no writer owes it to her readers to expose more than she is comfortable exposing. I finished Casting Off grateful to Sandys for what she has chosen to share, if a little wistful for what she hasn’t. Skilled memoirists like Sandys lay themselves bare so that we can pick over their lives, see what resonates, and relate their experiences to our own. In Casting Off Sandys also invites us to interrogate our own memories, consider how we relate to our past selves, and trust (as per a quotation from Vaclav Havel she includes), not that things will turn out well, but that they will make sense in the end, regardless of how they turn out. In this book, they do.