Book Review: Map for the Heart – Ida Valley essays

by Jillian Sullivan

A decade ago, Jillian Sullivan moved to the hamlet of Oturehua in Central Otago’s Ida Valley (population 34, give or take). She built herself a straw bale house, walked in the hills, rode her bike, and wrote and wrote and wrote. The move came after a marriage ended and the last of her children left home, and her essay collection Map for the Heart (Otago University Press) is a reflection on both the place she is in, and how she got there.

At its heart, the book is a love story, with the Ida Valley as the central character. “When all else fails,” she writes, “the light on the hills is unfailing; the ridges outlined in gold at sunset, and in the morning the folds and gullies blue, almost transparent, as the sun rises.” But it’s not all tussocks and tors. Part memoir, part op-ed, part bordering on prose poetry, Map for the Heart covers a swath of territory. It’s about relationships come and gone; raising children (and being raised); the value of “vernacular buildings”; the indignities of the social welfare system; the profundity of making a wall by hand; love, loss, weather, and the unifying power of a really big snowfall.

In the essay ‘Barefoot Running’, Sullivan examines her, her mother’s and her own children’s experiences of solo parenting. (Incredibly, after Sullivan’s parents split, there was a petition to stop her mother from teaching because she was a single parent.) It’s the best thing I have ever read on the subject.

And ‘Cycling with Bartali’ chronicles one year’s worth of bike rides in the valley. It’s spot-on in expressing how a bicycle connects you with where you are, and who you are: the smells, the sounds, the bumps in the tarseal, the hills, the persistence. “I plug on, sometimes lifting mine eyes to the mountains to remind myself why I am out here.”