Fiona Kidman wastes no time in setting the mood of her 1985 novel The Book of Secrets, which is populated with women accustomed to solitude, whether emotional or physical, chosen or forced upon them. This
edition, released for the 160th anniversary of the arrival from Nova Scotia of the first European settlers to Waipu, presents a story that has lost none of its power.
It opens in 1953, as Maria McClure reflects on 55 years spent alone in Waipu, “away from the society of people in the world.” Maria is the inheritor of a bizarre legacy that began nearly 14 decades earlier in Ullapool, Scotland. From real events – a slow migration led by a zealous preacher from the British Isles to Nova Scotia and finally Australia and New Zealand – Kidman crafts the fiction of three generations of women striving for freedom from the dominance of men and the yoke of societal expectation.
Maria shares the steeliness of her grandmother, Isabella, and the resilience and reticence of both women, considered mad by those around them, is merely a self-protective withdrawal from society. Certainly, Isabella endures enough trauma and hardship to consign a thousand Berthas to the attic.
Isabella’s complex connection with ‘the Man’, the charismatic and puritanical preacher Norman McLeod, is pivotal in the early plot of The Book of Secrets, and endures through her marriage to Duncan MacQuarrie and the McLeod-led departure from Scotland of the couple with 400 others in 1817.
Kidman eschews an examination of McLeod’s psyche in favour of revealing him through Isabella’s impression. Seemingly both attracted to and repulsed by the controlling preacher, in one encounter, she regards him coolly, his mouth “set in a tight line with a downward inflection at the corners, as if trying to hide something . . . [with] a fullness which might have been a tender curve had he allowed it full play.”
Isabella’s strength is not shared by McLeod’s put-upon wife Mary, whose grim existence is devoid of kindness or regard from her husband. Isabella’s story, told in part through letters to her sister-in-law and her own diaries (cherished by Maria as the ‘book of secrets’ that links her to her heritage and divulges painful family truths), is succeeded by that of Annie, the meek daughter of Isabella and her second husband.
At this point, against the backdrop of the famine that afflicted residents of Cape Breton Island in the mid-nineteenth century, the oppression forged by McLeod’s teachings enters the domestic sphere, with a blended family that is a picture of disharmony and that splinters upon the final landing in New Zealand. Maria, defiant from the moment of conception, is the sole issue of the unhappy marriage of Annie, who endures multiple late-stage miscarriages.
Kidman is concerned chiefly with the experience of women, and this, combined with the clarity of her prose and the thematic exploration of madness, faith, passionate love, and the dangers of curiosity, likens her work to that of the Brontës. But, as she shows, what would once seem world-ending can ultimately be prosaic: when McLeod dies “one yellow afternoon,” “the world carried on.” The Man was only a man.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM
Reviewed by Stephanie Jones