Brian Turner's Central Otago sparkles

Boundaries by Brian Turner
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Boundaries by Brian Turner

Boundaries: People and Places of Central Otago
Brian Turner
Godwit, $45

Brian Turner's Into the Wider World was a New Zealand best-seller in 2008. Published by Godwit, the book featured essays and poems written by one of New Zealand's foremost writers which were broadly focused on the New Zealand 'back country'. It was handsomely illustrated with full-page photographs. Turner's new book,Boundaries, repeats the format, but it brings the people and the places of Central Otago into the foreground.

Turner has lived in Central Otago's Oturehua (pop. 30) since 1999. It is a country of edges, subject to great climactic variance, with some of New Zealand's oldest and most spectacular landscapes. Boundaries is an evocation and investigation of small town rural life in the Ida and Manuherikia valleys, at a time when social and ecological changes have had a vast impact on both people and their landscape.

In many ways, it is an elegiac book, very much aware of the losses that have occurred. While examining the present, if often works in bittersweet retrospect. Turner describes a life close to the rhythms and weathers of a nature that is under threat. It's a fine colloquial recounting by a stubborn man, with his layers of clothing against the biting cold, the birds he feeds twice a day, his bike-rides and, most importantly, the people who surround him.

The heart of the book is formed by Turner's meditations on change and place. 'Black's Hill' is a recounting of a hill-ride, with reflections on contemporary life. The marvellously succinct 'Winter in Otuehura', vividly evokes a sharp season in a bright landscape. 'The Russian poet, Osip Madelstam, wrote of stars in the sky like frost on the blade of an axe', Turner begins. 'The image resounds, strikes me as entirely apt, if you live in my part of the world, the inland spaces of southern New Zealand.'

These essays are interspersed with observations of Central Otago people or chapters written by them. The combined effect is to very precisely locate the book in a unique physical and social world. 

Judy and Trevor Beck own the Triplet Creek farm and Turner's revelation of their intently-observed environment is a small miracle of reportage and compression. Deirdre and Steve Lithgow own another property, dominated by the Hawkduns and Mt Ida. 'It's only as isolated as you make it,' Deirdre remarks.

Turner's poems are always to the point — even if sometimes in Boundaries, they can be more prose than poetry, more caption than lyric. They work particularly well with the photography of Steve Calveley, another Central Otago local, a locum GP, whose work is an essential feature of the book. 

Calveley has an eye for spectacular landscapes, vast skies and human detail. The images are bright and big. Ultimately, the light-filled combination of photographs and words in Boundaries is irresistible.

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