Raiment by Jan Kemp reviewed on Newsroom


Steve Braunias from Newsroom has reviewed Raiment: A Memoir by Jan Kemp.

‘We think of Rosemary McLeod, rightly, as one of New Zealand's great prose humourists, for her classic weekly column in the Listener in the 1970s, when she wrote so scathingly and hilariously of her generation — the alternative lifestylers, the bohemians, the chattering classes, sending them all up in a bonfire of the vanities. No one could write like her. But the column featured something else, possibly even more scathing and hilarious: her illustrations, all of them drawn in dark, heavy ink, all of them portraits, a gallery of awful, hopeful faces of young and idealistic New Zealanders discovering ways of being in the 1970s. I thought of these kinds of grotesque caricatures that Rosemary drew when I read Raiment, Jan Kemp's small but perfectly charming memoir.

It’s a thin book, only 250 pages, and it only covers her life up to the age of 25. It goes from her birth in Claudelands in 1949 to sailing out of Port Vila in 1974. Half of the book is her childhood, the second half after she enrolls at the University of Auckland in 1968 and falls in love — with poetry, and with Johannes Maria Caris, who she married when she was 20 and he was more than twice her age.

Kemp writes about what it was like to actually live out those years as a young woman floating through a strange new kind of post-war New Zealand society. As satirist in chief of that age, Rosemary McLeod identified a hypocrisy in her columns and drawings – the way that hippie ideology spoke sonorously of freedom and equality, but imposed a sexist framework where men controlled the culture. Did the young Jan Kemp have what we now call agency? What were her feminist credentials? Or did she have other  things on her mind? One of the central concerns of Raiment is the burden of the body. She writes of joining Weight Watchers, and frets about getting fat. And: “As a young woman student without a permanent partner the main thing is not to get pregnant.”’

Read the full review here.