I enjoyed Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies so much that I included it on last year’s Women’s Prize wish list. Of course, I knew there was little or no hope that the judges would agree. Spanning 1952 to 2015, it told the story of a family, offering a glimpse of New Zealand’s social history through the lens of their experience. This Mortal Boy also begins in the ’50s, exploring the far-reaching effects of capital punishment through the case of Albert Black, a young Irish man who had emigrated in search of work and adventure but found himself in desperate trouble.
In 1953, eighteen-year-old Albert takes up the New Zealand government’s offer of a cheap passage. He’s a Belfast boy from a Protestant family, his mother’s favourite and popular with their neighbours. After a lonely start, Albert makes friends with Peter, another young man determined to make a life for himself. These two stick together, finding work and lodgings in Wellington but while Peter has no family to miss, Albert is miserably homesick, deciding to take himself off to Auckland, where wages are better, to save for his fare home. He settles in, looking after a boarding house while the landlady’s away and missing Peter’s companionship while losing himself in drink and sex. When he meets Johnny McBride, Albert is resistant to McBride’s determination to move in with him, but McBride will have none of it. Shortly after, their uneasy friendship turns to enmity, resulting in a fight and a fatal stabbing which lands Albert in the dock. New Zealand is in the grips of a moral panic. According to the Mazengarb Report, commissioned by New Zealand’s right-wing government, the country is overrun by young male migrants corrupting the country’s youth. It’s against this background that Albert’s trial takes place.
Kidman’s novel takes the case of Albert Black and uses it to explore the effects of capital punishment on all associated with it, from the prison staff who solace themselves with drink to the jury members who must live with the consequences of their verdict, convinced of it or not. Above all it’s the story of a young man, caught up in a life that he hadn’t expected, miserable with homesickness but with the possibility of love and a life ahead of him. Kidman is careful to flesh out her characters giving them backstories which bring them convincingly to life. Auckland is a place of transients and aliases, a ‘shifting febrile world’ where young men with good hearts sometimes behave badly. Her novel is both a tense courtroom drama and a political analysis which examines the role of prejudice and expedience in Albert’s case, posing questions about the possibility of misjustice. Kidman writes with compassion and empathy, steering this intensely moving novel well clear of sentimentality. I began my review of All Day at the Movies with the hope that Kidman would become better known in the UK; I’m ending this one with the same sentiment.