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.
I could start this post with yet another protestation that I’m not an historical fiction fan but I’m not entirely sure that’s true, particularly after listing Imogen Hermes Gower’s The Mermaid and the Mrs Hancock amongst my books of 2018. Perhaps I should adopt the term Craig Cliff mentions in his acknowledgements – romanzi storici – although once he’d got down to writing The Mannequin Makers he was no longer sure it fit the bill. Beginning at the turn of 1902, Cliff’s debut takes us up to 1974 with its tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before.
Colton Kemp lives in the small New Zealand town of Marumaru, a window dresser for Donaldson’s, one of two local department stores, who’s turned his hand to mannequin making. On New Year’s Eve 1902, his wife gives birth to twins losing her own live in the process. Colton is distraught, unable to speak of her death lest it become real to him. That same night, the German strongman makes an unscheduled appearance in the town. As Colton watches Sandow showcasing total control of his muscles, a plan emerges from the madness of his grief which will materialise sixteen years later. It will be the culmination of his intense rivalry with Gabriel Doig, known as The Carpenter, whose uncannily lifelike models adorn Hercus and Barling’s windows. Gabriel has his own story to tell. A ships’ carver from Scotland, he was taken on as a carpenter on the Agathos when his business finally failed. Scenting fresh meat, the crew do their worst, strapping him to the ship’s mast with Vengeance, his precious figurehead. When a storm hits, Gabriel finds himself cast away, surviving but losing his voice. He’s lived in Marumaru for two decades before a series of tableaux in Donaldson’s windows catch his eye. Can it possibly be what he thinks it is?
This is such an inventive, imaginative piece of storytelling; not just one story but several nested within each other. Gabriel’s story is almost a novel in itself, yet Cliff adroitly weaves it into Colton’s and his twins’, revealing the way in which one man can tragically misinterpret another’s motives. Madness and grief haunt this novel which has more than a touch of the gothic but moments of humour brighten it, and its narrative is gripping. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction which offered me some much-needed distraction from my Brexit woes although opening the book to find this quote prefacing Part One felt horribly apt:
We run carelessly to the precipice after we have put something before us to prevent us from seeing it
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 title of C. K. Stead’s novel may ring a few bells for some. It’s taken from a collection of essays on poetry by Wallace Stevens. I wish I could tell you that bit of knowledge was lodged in my brain, ready to be slipped neatly into this review but the reference is made clear towards the end of this erudite novel through which the phrase runs, meaning different things to different people. Set in Paris in 2014, The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne from New Zealand and the three women who play significant parts in his life during the year the novel spans.
Max Jackson has lived in Paris for many years. His wife, Louise, is also an academic, senior to him and currently finishing what she hopes will be the definitive edition of Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. Max lives in an apartment in the same building as Louise and their two children. Their estrangement seems comfortably amicable – often he eats with the family, sometimes the couple compares professional notes. In the process of devising a conference to celebrate the First World War poets, Max conceives a passion for Sylvie, his junior colleague, already living with her married German lover. Then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, enthusiastically praising a poem Max published years ago and declaring herself mad. Helen is bipolar, precariously managing her illness with a mixture of lithium and Buddhism. Max is charmed by her eccentricity while still yearning for Sylvie and wondering quite what his relationship is with Louise. While Louise is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix.
Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining. Max is an engaging character, an outsider with intimate knowledge, both at home in his adopted country and not entirely comfortable as he listens to his children’s chatter, knowing that he’ll never quite capture its nuances. Stead’s wry wit and astute insight into the workings of French society, particularly the haute bourgeoisie, are smartly amusing and the writing is all you’d hope for from an award-winning poet laureate, summoning up Paris in all her glory. A multitude of literary allusions stud the novel – even the cops read Modiano. Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest pops up frequently and when Francois Hollande’s ex-partner Valérie Trierweiler’s Thank You for That Moment sells out the local bookseller pointedly assures his customers that Balzac, Dumas and Maupassant’s works are still in plentiful supply. Max’s year plays out against a background of music, art, film and politics. Tragedies may consume the news but life with all its petty and not so petty concerns goes on. Polished, witty and immensely intelligent, The Necessary Angel is a triumph. Stead has a long and distinguished career as a poet, novelist and literary critic. I’m looking forward to exploring his backlist.
Those lovely people at Shiny New Books have been busy again, putting together another issue for your delectation packed with features, interviews and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers. My own contribution is a review of Peter Walker’s Some Here Among Us which mixes the personal with the political on a grand scale, taking its characters from their youthful student days in 1967 to their more sober late middle age in 2010 by way of New Zealand, Washington and Beirut. Why not pop over and take a gander.
There’s a curiously old-fashioned feel to Sebastian Hampson’s debut. It’s about a naïve gauche young man about to start his art history studies at the Sorbonne and his encounter with an older, sophisticated woman who decides to make something of him. The press release suggests Brief Encounter and there’s certainly a cinematic feel about Hampson’s descriptions of Biarritz and Paris but while it begins as a bright, slightly comic romp things take a darker turn edging more towards Les Liaisons Dangereuses territory, de Laclos’s masterly eighteenth century classic novel.
Lawrence, our twenty-year-old narrator, is making his way back to Paris after meeting his girlfriend in Madrid. He muses on their relationship, unable to understand quite why they haven’t yet slept together, comparing himself with his altogether more worldly flatmate with whom he went to school back in New Zealand. Set to change trains in a small Basque town he finds that the French railways have been hit by a strike. There are no free seats on the only two trains to Paris over the weekend. While debating with himself what to do he spies a glamorous, beautifully turned out woman, clearly considerably older than him. They fall into conversation and almost against his will, Lawrence finds himself on a jaunt to Biarritz, installed in a luxurious hotel with Élodie who spends much of her time cajoling him about his manners, his clothes, his girlfriend and his dullness while introducing him to what she sees as the finer side of life. An adventure has begun.
Lawrence’s slightly pompous, gaucheness is particularly well drawn. His eagerness to show off his knowledge of art history, frequently dropping in references to paintings and architecture, nicely awkward, but what kept my interest in this novel was the relationship between the two main protagonists. Just what is Élodie up to? Who is she and how does she manage to live on champagne and foie gras without any visible means of support? What’s her relationship with the enjoyably sleazy Ed Selvin? What is she hoping to get out of this seemingly Trilby/Svengali relationship with Lawrence? Is she quite what she seems? Some, although not all, of these questions are answered but that’s not entirely the point. The novel is as much about the way in which Lawrence is changed by his encounter and what it means for his future life. It’s an interesting spin on the conventional older man/younger woman dynamic and I wondered how I would have felt if the genders had been reversed. An enjoyable novel, then, and one which turned out to be more thought-provoking than I’d expected. I’ll look forward to seeing what Hampson does next.