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.
Like 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 longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction: