The subtitle of this new book of autobiography tells us everything about what to expect: “On journeys, widowhood and stories that are never over.”
What it can’t say is just how moving these pages are, what a tribute and what a story. Within the first few pages you are struck by the bravery of the author. We should expect no less from Fiona Kidman, author of more than thirty books, but these are deeply personal feelings. She talks about getting older, which can mean the loss of friends and loved ones, but it can also mean the bubbling up of inner resistance:
“I can’t deny that grief doesn’t stalk us as we grow old. But there are pleasures all around. I found them in new friendships, books, my garden, the endless connections we make with one another.”
Her conclusion to the preface is the essence of what this book is about:
“Every life is extraordinary if you allow it to be. I am grateful for mine.”
The title story comes first, and is hard to read. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to write. Kidman’s husband Ian. The fall. The thud. The sound that will stay for her forever. It is a piece laden with regret; her frequent travel, time absorbed in writing and research, the delayed flight home, the unnecessary trip he made to collect her from the airport, the broken cable car and the long flight of steps. Any one of those things might have been different that day and the ending would not have been that thud.
Children and grandchildren are contacted around the globe, all begin their journeys. So too are the Buddhist monks with whom Ian had worked and volunteered in Cambodia.
“So as night turned into morning, saffron-robed men appeared and started to chant. The steady rhythm of their voices began to calm us.”
So closes a passage of 58 years together. I found it very moving.
There are several references in the book to grandparents, Kidman’s from both Scotland and Ireland, links back through cousins and old characters remembered on a Waikato farm. She talks about what it means to be a grandmother herself, and dispenses good advice about taking on such a role:
“Becoming a grandmother is nature’s way of reminding us when we are old what it is like to fall in love again.”
I like the conversational nature of what I read, the situations that lead to interesting observations and insights. How special to be running an autobiography writing class in an old Wellington pub, The Thistle Inn, which features in one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories? If that doesn’t inspire, what does? But what an interesting challenge to put to your class; five interesting things about themselves and one secret in the family.
As well as the observations there are also the linkages. The smell of citrus flowers that greeted Kidman when she arrived in the Mediterranean town of Menton to take up the Mansfield Fellowship reminded her of her mother in New Zealand’s far north, climbing lemon trees to pick the crop. One shilling and sixpence (7½ pence or fourteen cents) for each wooden box filled.
The longest section of the book concerns Albert Black, the subject of her multi-prizewinning 2018 novel This Mortal Boy. It is fascinating to read her own thoughts on what happened at the time, outside of the constraints of the novel. It is good to know that others think there was a miscarriage of justice that day. A young man should never have been hanged, but charged with manslaughter not murder. Also of interest to me was that there was a child, a descendent of Albert Black and after that there were grandchildren. A line was established, things did not end with the terrible outcome of a hanging. For some reason I draw comfort from that knowledge.
One thing that I notice several times in the book is the way that Kidman uses real places, people or incidents as episodes in her books of fiction. For example she takes the horror of being stalked by a stranger and turns it into a powerful scene of despair somewhere else, channelling her own emotions and despair into powerful fiction. It is a great learning for any writer, that although we may not experience the things that our characters do in the stories we write, we can still find experiences somewhere in our own histories which can be adapted and will bring a scene to life.
Towards the end of the book there is a section about the Pike River mining tragedy and the campaigning that Kidman and her husband did to achieve justice for those who had lost their loved ones in the disaster. It is a saga that becomes harder and harder to follow, and one in which no political party would emerge covered in glory. Most of all it feels as if no-one has ever paid the price for the terrible failure to keep workers safe.
The book wraps up with some last thoughts on widowhood and how to survive it. There will always be memories of shared times, but don’t forget there will always be the chance to create new memories.
This is a wonderful addition to Fiona Kidman’s novels and autobiography.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson.
Penguin Random House New Zealand