At the Butcher Counter of Life by Janet Parmely

Wheatmark Front Cover

At the Butcher Counter of Life: Adventure, Chaos, and Illumination in New Zealand 
Janet Parmely 
Wheatmark, 2018

3.5 Stars


Perhaps some of the best memoirs aren’t those which tell a specific story or give readers some special glimpse into a heretofore unknown world, but those giving not so much an impressionistic feel for a time and place rather a sense of rapport. I would argue the best travel writing operates in a similar vein. Thus, when readers pick up Janet Parmely’s At the Butcher Counter of Life they will encounter a travelogue/memoir with less of a moral to tell and more of an innervate invocation of a time (midlife) and a place (New Zealand).

I don’t think we can really call the decisions Parmely makes ‘bad choices,’ but they are mostly certainly uniquely chosen. Few people in their early 50s and newly married would decide to take a rather specious sounding job (selling hearing aids) in perhaps the most far from home place possible (New Zealand) for a year. It’s never very clear what Parmely is looking for, what her quest is even though throughout At the Butcher Counter of Life we read of encounters pregnant with advice and anxious to give ‘life-meaning’ to the mundane. It could easily and quickly become tiresome, however Parmely is able to thread the needle making her story one of good-natured quirk.

There are, of course, characters whose sense of self is larger than life as well as figures from Parmely’s life providing genuine tension (an aspect that always keeps her narrative grounded and prevents it from flying off into the vacuous realm of inspirational literature). The old timers calling themselves God’s Holding Paddock at the local pub spin out yarns, advice, and wry observations whether prompted or not providing us not just with splashes of local color but a deeper sense of Kiwi life than most readers would typically have. So Parmley as the ear and readers as the listeners make this aspect of the book one of the most endearing. It’s part of the trait making meaningful travelogue and memoirs, that is, how the author navigates persons and places at once embracing and distancing herself (both literally and figuratively). Parmley is able to write clean, direct prose giving us a clear expression of it. 

There is a charm to Parmely’s tone which will make many readers smile. Her patience with the new world she finds herself in, at once familiar and strange, is the very reason many and most travel seeking out vivid experiences. Parmely does an excellent job of relaying to readers not just the happenings she finds herself embroiled in but the reasoning behind it and the emotional consequence and/or impact of it. Whether it’s comedic or tragic, Parmely’s tale will find a way of intriguing readers.

Read an excerpt.


About the Author

This One – more cropped

“We Have Sixty Million Sheep but We’re Short on Audiologists.”

She answered the ad, got the job in New Zealand, and landed in a spot so dear that its name may as well be tattooed over her heart. Janet Parmely was fifty-one years old. It took her a long time to find a place that felt like home. 

Her family moved around when she was growing up. Her parents bickered. They bickered in Massachusetts, Tennessee, California, New York State, and even in France. All the bickering and relocating did not make for a robust sense of belonging.

Eventually she carved a niche as a working single mother, a writer with a day job in Kansas City. When fifty hit, that became obsolete at lightning speed. Ever a seeker, she answered the call to adventure. Her one-year contract evolved into the best and worst decade of her life. 

Janet lives now with one foot in each hemisphere, the inevitable ache of a spirit divided between two countries, and a greater respect for the horsepower of hope—which, she advises, you’d best not forget to pack for the trek from ignorance to illumination, a birth-to-grave endeavor.

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