Joanna Woods is highly qualified to be telling the story of New Zealand's 100 year history diplomatic representation through the eyes of the spouses and daughters of its various diplomats. For 22 years she herself was the wife of a diplomat, representing New Zealand in Rome, Teheran, Bahrain, Washington, Athens, Paris and Moscow,  rising up the ranks from a lower level secretary to ambassador.

It does all sound incredibly glamorous and sophisticated, representing your country at the highest level, all those parties, meeting interesting and influential people from everywhere, the travel, the domestic help, education and many expenses paid for. But the reality of this life is actually quite different, and having worked in the foreign service myself, albeit some 30 years ago, I was able to observe how tough this life can be on the spouse and the family. Even though I was not a spouse, so much of this book rang true. I can still see the sadness on the face of the wife of the Head of Mission as she farewelled her children back to school in New Zealand for another protracted period of time. 

In most cases, the NZ mission is one of the smallest in any foreign city hence there is less support available especially when something goes wrong. Family life can be chaotic with children usually going to boarding school back in New Zealand, only seeing their parents in school holidays. The result is many children grow up not feeling as if they are a New Zealander or from any other country for that matter. It was only in the late 1980s that spouses were allowed to work in the country that their husband/wife was sent to. Prior to that the spouse, usually the wife, was expected to be the one who kept the home fires burning. I can recall at the post I was sent to in the mid 1980s that two of the spouses were husbands  - neither was allowed to work, there was literally nothing for them to do. One left half way through the posting.

Joanna Woods has taken just a handful of NZ's diplomatic wives, beginning with the establishment of an official NZ office in London in 1896, the first embassy in Moscow straight after WWII, being in Saigon when it was overtaken by the Viet Cong, early days in Samoa and Tonga, having the first coup in Fiji occuring on your doorstep, being in New York on 9/11, a dalliance with Pierre Trudeau, and driving across borders during the Kuwait hostage crisis in 1990. And many more. The stories and memories are riveting to read, and yes, it is slightly gossiply in style, but what a marvellous homage to the many, many unsong heroes  of New Zealand's diplomacy.

They say that behind every successful man is a woman, and for our diplomats no truer words were spoken. For much of New Zealand's diplomatic history, the spouses have generally been women - strong, intelligent, highly educated and feisty women. Increasingly the spouses are men - the spouse during the Kuwiat hostage situation is a man. Gay and lesbian spouses are also increasingly recognised and taking their rightful place as representatives of New Zealand.

This is a great read, not just of lives far removed from daily life in New Zealand or anywhere for that matter, but of the place that New Zealand has gradually made for itself in the world and the high esteem it is held in, plus giving  us eye witness accounts of a number of events that have shaped the twentieth and early twenty first century.  


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