Tag Archives: Aardvark Bureau

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman: The story of a family

Cover imageLike that old joke about buses, after not reading a novel by a New Zealand author in a very long time I’ve read two in just over a month – first C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel and now Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies. I remember reading a post at Word by Word about Kidman in which Claire mentioned that she was little known outside New Zealand and Australia which seems a shame. With luck this story of a family, spanning over sixty years, will bring her writing a little more attention, here in the UK at least.

Irene Sandle has taken a job in the tobacco fields. A widow who spent the war working in her local library and raising six-year-old Jessie, she‘s unused to the sheer hard graft of manual labour but determined to reclaim her independence. Fending off the foreman’s attentions, she’s won over by the small acts of kindness of another, gentler man. After a disaster in which Bert is killed, Irene finds it expedient to accept the bullying Jock, marrying him and having three more children. When Irene dies, her neighbour steps neatly into her shoes, turning her face away from Jock’s abuse and dealing out her own cruelty. Jessie takes off, heading for the city, then Belinda is taken in by Jock’s sister leaving Janice and Grant at the mercy of Jock and Charm, a misnomer if ever there was one. These four will lead very different lives: Jessie building a glittering journalistic career; Belinda marrying her first love and becoming a documentary maker; Janice running from the man she thought would save her from Jock, and Grant searching for a new identity, distancing himself from his toxic upbringing.

A family saga is a very old-fashioned structure but if handled well it can be immensely satisfying, and Kidman does it beautifully. Beginning in 1952 and ending in 2015, this engrossing novel follows the four siblings down the disparate roads they choose or are taken down, bringing them back to the root of what has formed them, while offering snapshots of New Zealand’s story along the way. Themes of racism, violence and abuse run through the novel, all explored with admirable humanity. Even the less sympathetic characters are well-rounded with backstories compassionately told.  It took me a little while to get into as a multitude of characters were introduced but after the first few chapters I was hooked. This is such an accomplished novel, thoroughly absorbing with all its loose ends neatly tucked in. Like C. K. Stead, Kidman is a mature author with an extensive backlist which I’m looking forward to exploring.

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert: Adult fairy tale, horror story or dystopian fiction?

Cover imageBack in 2014 I fell in love with Charles Lambert’s autobiographical novel, With a Zero at its Heart. Made up of 24 themed chapters, each of which has 10 paragraphs of 120 words, it was a triumph of disciplined structure, much of it beautifully written. Naturally when I heard about his new novel I was interested to see how he’d chosen to follow it. Nothing conventional seemed likely and The Children’s Home certainly can’t be accused of that. Impossible to fit it neatly into a genre – dystopian fiction, horror story, adult fairy story – it’s one of the most unusual books I’ve read and I’m still puzzling over it.

Morgan Fletcher lives behind a high wall on a large estate. Horribly disfigured, he was once a beautiful young man now hiding himself from the flinching gaze of the outside world. His housekeeper, Engel, appeared one day, apparently knowing all about him, sent – he assumes – by his sister who takes care of the family business doing Morgan knows not what. One day a child arrives, then another, and another. Soon the house is full of children and babies all of whom are accepting of Morgan’s disfigurement. Doctor Crane is brought in to attend the children, later becoming Morgan’s friend. The house is stuffed with treasures collected by Morgan’s grandfather which the children and Crane happily sift through. When they find a wax model of a pregnant woman, the children seem entranced and are later found keening in a circle around it. All seems well – if a little strange – until government agents appear, taking away one of the children with them when they leave. Moira must be found, and David, who has become the children’s leader, knows where to look insisting that Morgan must come with him. What Morgan discovers shocks him utterly but leads to a form of liberation for all.

That little summary barely does justice to the strangeness of some of the imaginative flights Lambert takes in this novella. It’s a book in which there’s a great deal about motherhood and children, and the way in which children are treated by society – there are echoes of the Second World War with mentions of children taken to camps in the East and gassed. There’s also the matter of Morgan’s complicity in whatever it is that his sister oversees at the factory – something far worse than he (or we) could ever have imagined but he has always known that it was to do with ‘power’ and all that implies. All this is expressed in plain, straightforward language, a world away from the lyrical beauty of With a Zero at its Heart. It’s a fascinating book, not one which lends itself to easy analysis. I think I’ll be scratching my head over it for some time to come.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr: A theremin reprise

Cover imageBack in what passed for a summer here in the UK, I read Sean Michaels’ Us, Conductors which told the story of Leon Theremin, inventor of the strange musical instrument that bears his name. Thoroughly enjoyable, it has what remains one of the best lines I’ve read in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’. Much to my surprise, barely six months later, another novel featuring the theremin popped up: Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt which tells the story of the eponymous virtuoso theremin player. Leon Theremin makes a cameo appearance but other than that, as far as I can tell, it’s entirely a work of fiction.

Invited to play at an electronic music festival, eighty-year-old Lena cuts an elegant figure on stage,  holding the audience spellbound with the ethereal sounds her instrument produces as she moves her hands over it. Lena plays rarely these days and is more than a little irked by a poor review after the concert, so much so that against her better judgement she decides to co-operate with the woman who has asked if she can make a documentary telling the story of Lena’s life. Rather than a conventional retelling, Maureen wants an extemporised version, an improvisation, and that is what Lena gives her, picking up the manuscript she began many years ago. Hers has been an eventful life. Her first four years were spent in Singapore until the diagnosis of a leaky heart resulted in her parents sending her ‘home’ to Australia where she’s met by her delightful Uncle Valentine who heads off to war for four years leaving her at boarding school. It’s Valentine who later encourages her musical talent, presenting her with an aluminium cello when she’s summoned to join her parents in Malacca, aged sixteen; Valentine who teaches her to swim, a lifelong habit and solace in times of trouble; and Valentine who opens her mind to modernity and all its exciting new inventions, paving the way to her theremin playing. After a stultifying year in Malacca, Lena makes her escape, taking herself off to Sydney where she’s introduced to the instrument that will make her name and meets the love of her life. Music, swimming, walking and solitude – these are the constants in a life that will encompass love, tragedy and a great deal of opium.

Lena neatly unfolds her story, punctuated by visits from Maureen who gently prompts her subject, opening her up with details of her own life so that Lena divulges far more than she ever intended. Farr has a sharp eye for location. Bali, which Lena visits on her way to Malacca, is particularly strikingly described – colourful and vibrant – as is the construction of the new Sydney Bridge which Lena loves to watch, seeing it as the embodiment of modernity. Grief – of which there is much – is handled with a light touch, poignant but never cloyingly so. Lena’s voice is a strong one, carrying her story through her eventful life convincingly and engrossingly. So convinced was I that I spent some time googling her but the only thing I came up with was Farr’s novel. Not the equal of Us, Conductors for me but it’s an absorbing and enjoyable novel nevertheless. And if you want to know what Lena’s extraordinary instrument sounds like, pop on over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor. Once heard never forgotten!.