Finally my review of this marvellous book, one of the best NZ novels I have read, so pleased I have had opportunity to read and review, pass book to others, and give to family for Christmas presents. This is a greatly abridged review of that submitted for LandfallOnLine.
Dame Fiona Kidman, what a national treasure this woman is. She writes fiction novels and short stories, poetry, memoirs – yes, more than one, film scripts. She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her writing, she has been involved in the publishing and advancement of all New Zealand writing and books. A true heroine of New Zealand publishing, but more importantly of telling the stories of women’s lives in this country. It seems to me that this latest book collectively takes all these past stories, including fragments from her own life story, seamlessly stitching them together into a moving, acutely observed chronicle of a family over a sixty year plus period.
There is history too in this novel, even if it is in the very recent past for many people in this country. Those of us around who remember, and may or may not have taken part in protests of the 1981 Springbok tour will recall it as a pretty traumatic, divisive time, even though it was only for 56 days. The tour has a prominent part to play in this book. Not so prominent but of equal import in the story and plot making are a variety of other events that were crucial to the times, if not necessarily so to the characters. For example, the 1951 Watersiders’ Strike, the death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk in 1974, the Ruth Richardson ‘Mother of All Budgets’ in 1991, United Women’s Convention of 1975, are just a few of the milestones that are peppered throughout this novel, and lend enormous authenticity to the characters, their actions and lives.
This novel is the story of a family, a family torn apart even before it had begun. A man dies during WWII leaving behind a pregnant wife, Irene. The story opens in 1952 with Irene and her now six year old daughter trying to start a new life with a tobacco picking job in Motueka. None of this goes to plan of course, and by the end of the first chapter, some thirty pages later, Irene has almost lost her daughter, found and lost a potential husband, been part of a horrible death, and in her shock, found herself an actual husband. And what a bad life choice that turned out to be. But what does one do – barely coping with one child, and a second child on the way. Irene was hardly unusual for her time, choosing to marry a man, Jock, making the best of what she saw as the best of a bad situation.
Tragedy strikes again some years later, with the death of Irene. Widowhood is indiscriminate in its choices. Little told are the stories of men widowed due to wives dying in childbirth or of illness, leaving them unable to cope with babies and young children. Enter the stepmother, who often started in the household as a housekeeper, or was a widowed friend, neighbour, or just a lonely woman who saw an opportunity to change her life. More often than not, totally ill-equipped to take on the care and upbringing of distraught grieving children not her own. Jock and his four children, Jessie, Belinda, Grant and Janice find themselves in this very situation. The new stepmother may be Charm by name, but certainly not by nature.
Life treats each of the four children differently in its unfolding of events over the years that follow, as the fallout of those early days takes hold, and never goes away. There is never any excuse for cruelty. Jock and Charm, really are the most awful pieces of work, making the lives of each of these children a total misery.
It is going to give too much of the plot away to say what happens to Jessie, Belinda, Grant and Janice. Suffice to say that collectively, there is teenage pregnancy, banishment, adoption, marriage, child sexual and physical abuse, racism and bigotry, what would probably be diagnosed now as dyslexia, depression and mental illness, domestic violence, drugs, imprisonment. Wow – you hooked now? You want to read this? A phenomenal amount of action packed into 318 pages! All against the backdrop of New Zealand’s ever changing social and political times.
It certainly is worth reading, if for nothing else than the documentation of change over the last sixty years or so in our society, and how attitudes have also changed. For example, to women working and having real careers, something that was almost unheard of in the 1970s; women having control over their reproduction, again only just getting underway in the 1970s; changes in attitude to unmarried mothers, teen mothers, adoption; to children with learning difficulties. Although I have my doubts if things would really have been any better for those children living with Jock and Charm under today’s Child, Youth and Family Service.
Admittedly the novel is a bit of a whirlwind. There are many potential plot lines that could be furthered explored and developed, many characters I would love to have known more about. But this is a minor criticism.The fact that I wanted to know more shows how engaged I was with the novel, with the characters, their lives, the decisions they make, what happens to them. Dame Fiona leaves no stone unturned in her telling, with a geographical reach as impressive as her social/historical reach – Hokianga, Auckland, Rotorua, Turangi, Wairarapa, Wellington, Motueka, South Canterbury, even as far out as the Campbell Islands. Her characters live in cities, farms, small towns. They are poor, middle class, protestant, catholic, successful career people, students, teachers, marginalized, academics, hairdressers. And this is the real beauty of this novel. She wants people to get on, to live and work together in harmony, empathy, understanding and kindness for each other. That despite our infinite variety in where we come from, how we live, we what do, we are essentially the same. It would be so easy for her to rail in anger and rage at the way women have had to fight for their equal place in our society, at the injustice served to those who don’t quite fit the traditional, conservative mould of much of New Zealand society in its short history. And yet she doesn’t. She quietly gets on with telling the stories of damaged people, always with an eye to things getting better, not reflecting or dwelling in the past, having those four children – Jessie, Belinda, Grant and Janice – constantly trying to make it right and do better for themselves. So, for two of them it doesn’t work out, which are the tragedies of this novel, as happens in many families, but in the last pages there is a reunion of sorts, realistically awkward, which does give hope for the future of this fractured family.
I truly hope you read this book, especially if you have lived through these times, have strong memories of what NZ society was once like, how things have changed for the better. Plus it is just such a great story. I loved it. Is this Dame Fiona's best book? I have no idea, but I certainly intend to read more of her so as to find out.