Elspeth Sandys' fiction shows an attentive, lucid, modest writer. The same qualities distinguish this memoir. She was the child of a fleeting liaison just before World War II. After nine months, she was adopted, her birth name changed, and a new certificate - a new identity, virtually - issued.

She became a member of an exuberant, established Dunedin family, but the mental fragility of her adoptive mother, "the saddest person I have ever seen", kept the little girl's life precarious. The graph of this mother's disintegration is one of the most affecting elements in the book.

It's a book which focuses on the author's childhood years, interspersed with glimpses of her adult life. Sandys didn't feel drawn to seek her birth parents until her own middle age. It was a quest intensified by the erosion of her health and happiness, and by what she compellingly calls "the ancestral darkness" that she sensed enveloping her.

The result is a satisfying blend of fact and recreation: "not a history, but a portrait". Some moments are reconfigured; some openly imagined. It does no harm to the story's integrity, and it provides the emotional intimacy that fiction does best.

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This is a story of houses (especially Lauriston, which becomes both setting and paradigm for her early years) and gardens: "Bossy dahlias and show-off peonies; scented stock and prim-faced marigolds."

But it's dominated by people: her daring, glamorous adoptive brother; a puritanical yet protective school principal; Sandys' proud, frightened birth mother, who bestrides the early chapters; her spectacularly smug birth father.

The great world treads past in the background. Michael Joseph Savage tells New Zealand it's at war; Rewi Alley is part of the extended family; post-World War II austerity and racially cleansed All Black teams appear. Wellington with its cable car, New Plymouth with its fluoridated water (things have regressed since then) are among the settings.

Focus always stays on the bookish, imaginative child, building her own and others' stories in her head, learning how hard it is for some people to love, slowly comprehending life's limitations: "It was just the way of things."

There's a remarkable ending, in the form of one of the author's most successful short stories, that she wrote in a sustained, night-long burst.

Its plot of loss, devotion and stoic endurance is the memoir in miniature.

Sandys has been an observer or participant in some of the most significant moments and movements of New Zealand writing. She's recorded our culture, aspirations, identity. Let's hope there'll be another memoir to supplement this eloquent story.

What Lies Beneath by Elspeth Sandys (Otago University Press $35)