Gripping, lyrical Kidman, Janet Wilson

Ricochet Baby
Fiona Kidman
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 304 0

Fiona Kidman is today more than ever in command of her craft. Ricochet Baby, her new novel— and first book since the semi-autobiographical volume, Palm Prints (1994) — will delight all readers who have revelled in her unflinching gaze and sharply delineated social worlds, the signature of novels like A Breed of Women . A gripping tale, which is developed in leisurely fashion and which touches lyrically on the borders of love and madness, this is Kidman at her most enticing.

Her cast of characters spanning three generations features Roberta, married to Paul CooksIey, their extended families, an eccentric mother and her adopted daughter and, most colourfully, a car spraypainter-cum-fisherman-tax-evader. At its heart is a study of the devastating psychological effects of post-natal depression. Other family problems also emerge: childlessness threatens to break up another marriage, alcoholism ravages a third.

But the novel is not burdened by these themes of dysfunction, for many moments of lightness keep it buoyantly alert, giving it a hopeful and joyful mood. “The sky above is as blue as a thrush’s egg and the far below sea a dark navy that stains the Wellington horizon. They all feel drenched with blue and gold light and full of hope.” This natural harmony aroused by shared expectations anticipates the warm reconciliation implied at the end. Kidman is adept at capturing the complexity of a social pathology — whether puritan repression, addiction or depravity — without unduly oppressive or negative introspection. When Roberta is a voluntary patient in a psychiatric ward, for example, the intimate moments she shares with Nurse Peach and her observation of the inflections and gestures of her psychiatrist stand out as much as her memories of her past life.

Although Ricochet Baby is Kidman’s first novel since True Stars (1990), a chronicle of political corruption showing our fall from grace after the Springbok tour of 1981, its themes are not exactly a new departure: women’s lives, whether socially marginal and domestically central or vice versa, are the main concern of earlier works of hers such as Mandarin Summer, and The Book of Secrets and Paddy’s Puzzle; and “women’s issues” — marriage, divorce, childbearing, extramarital love affairs — permeate all her work. What differs here is the interest in a psychological disorder, in the treatment of a mental condition, even in Roberta’s medication — CIonazepam and Amitripteline, not the Princess Di drug, Prozac — as an absorbing case study.

Roberta’s personal horror emerges traumatically from a mistimed and nearly mismanaged birth and its after-effects but this maelstrom, against which the rise and fall of her brief marriage to Paul is charted, overlaps with other domestic dramas. Kidman gives us social comedy teetering on the verge of disaster, with classic moments of confrontation between the Cooksleys and the Nichols, families whose backgrounds, lifestyles and attitudes are a study in difference: the Christmas dinner with in-laws and aunts, the group therapy session (degenerating into a free-for-all slanging match), the pandemonium which follows the baby snatching. But she is sufficiently aware of the story’s human side to convince the reader of Roberta’s survival instincts which lead her to seek out Josh Thwaite and fall in love with him and of her parents’ genuine feelings of concern and love for her, despite their own problems and differences. By tracking her heroine’s nightmare through the therapy of childhood memories and the discovery of real love, alternatives to marriage which anticipate a more satisfying life, Kidman imparts serenity and optimism to what might otherwise be a disturbing story.

Kidman’s prose is responsible for the novel’s many fine touches. Although owing a lot to her writing for film, television and radio drama, her style at times reverberates with a melodic, pulsating energy that is more akin to poetry than to prose:

She hasn’t intended to say anything, but the madrigal singers are humming softly to themselves, like an orchestra tuning for a performance, and the women in their absurd costumes, the high sweet buzz behind their closed lips and the scent of roses unleash an unintentional torrent of words.

Particularly memorable are descriptions of the landscape — the magnificent garden at Walnut, the Wairarapa farm — and the delicately sensuous portrayal of sexual encounters. “There were buttercups out by the river, and sun shining through the willow branches. My mother was naked, lying back in the grass with light falling about her, so that her cream skin glowed gold-yellow”. Kidman’s egalitarian, populist orientation emerges in her restrained depictions of the upper-middle-class Cooksley family in its elegant but soulless surroundings; in the engagement with Edith and Glass Nichols, Roberta’s more down-to-earth farming parents; in the relish with which she draws the underclass of those out to “screw” the system. But the novel’s mood is softer and more lyrical. This causes some inconsistencies of tone. Josh Thwaite’s in-your-face style diatribe (“Pull the other tit, it’s benefit day”) soon disappears, for example, and he speaks like the other middle-class characters when he assumes the role of romance hero.

The influence of docu-drama style of film and television appears in the novel’s rapid exchanges of dialogue, its clustering of dramatic incident and its well-judged momentum. Using documentary techniques of closely juxtaposed scenes and swift cutting between characters, Kidman develops three different stories simultaneously, weaving them together to produce an outcome which has all the classic hallmarks of an old-fashioned romance. Chapter headings and subdivisions, sometimes three within a chapter, a reader-friendly gesture, make the story accessible, while evocative subtitles like “The Woman in the Paddock”, “Breathing Lessons”, “War Woman”, “Cat Twists”, “Moon Shadow” and the “Counsel of Fools” nudge it along.

Anchoring events in recognisable Kiwi settings also imparts immediacy and vividness; the ante-natal clinic, where husbands and wives alike without their shoes on give off the whiff of bad bananas, the inner workings of the Inland Revenue Department, the miraculous garden at Walnut, background for many important occasions: the wedding, the garden party, family disagreements and new friendships. These are counterbalanced by the rural locations, the fisherman’s cottage at Ngawi, the seaside cottage in camping ground in north Taranaki in which Roberta’s road to recovery begins. Allusions to cultural enthusiasms in the 1990s, such as the Listener women’s book festivals with overseas stars (Barbara Trapido! Erica Jong!) include the local reader. Even Paul Holmes enters to cover the kidnapping drama.

Kidman’s innovative writing extends to blending narrative omniscience with an interior stream of consciousness by switching from a third-person narrative which includes Roberta to Roberta’s first-person voice even within the same chapter. This technique is reminiscent of The Book of Secrets which in the life stories of three generations of women — told through letters, journals, dreams and recollections — chronicles an alternative version of the past to recorded history and patriarchal time. Like these foremothers, Roberta’s voice shows her growing dislocation from expectations of marriage and domestic and social conformity and the insecurity and instability that post-natal depression brings.

Kidman’s alternating perspectives on Roberta’s plight, a tricky balancing act, is a source of both strength and weakness. They work superbly in semi-comic scenes such as the catastrophic family Christmas dinner where, loaded with nervous anticipation, she recalls an earlier Christmas while the rest of the family carouse, oblivious to her. But the effect of the first-person voice in the novel as a whole is less powerful. Kidman’s convincing presentation of Roberta’s psychic disintegration through her actions and speech is not matched in her depiction of the interior experience of her distress and depression. It becomes easier to identify these with the “wrongness” of her marriage than with any pathology of disorder, although the meetings with the psychiatrist and his insistence that she continue to see him, suggest that they lie in the latter rather than the former. The flashbacks into childhood provide insights into her family life and personality but the confusion and trauma which her past may have caused are missing and so is the drama of her therapy.

This sense of dislocation between the illness and its causes is matched by the uncertainty of the opening atmosphere of unease, which sets the tone for this theme, in relation to the rest of the story. It is epitomised by the mysterious rings on the paddock which seem to be linked with the pregnancy but the presence and meaning of which are as hard to identify as their place in the larger scheme of things. Are they extra-terrestrial manifestations? Or are they “a Mandelbrot set”? What is their relationship with the baby about to be born? Are they emblematic of the disturbances (circles? ripples?) that Roberta’s breakdown causes? The novel’s apparent gesture in the direction of science fiction here and the later excursion into chaos theory encourages a misreading of it’s human concerns for it seems at first as though Kidman is promising a different story (another Alien 11?) to the one she delivers.

But there is no need to answer these questions of thematic coherence. The somewhat discordant discourses — psychotherapeutic, science fiction, domestic drama, romance — contribute to the novel’s narrative momentum.. Kidman is exploiting the plasticity of a genre which does not require tidy edges or neat explanations. Approximations, the illusion of reality create the world of romance fiction. Nevertheless, Ricochet Baby does raise the question of how to “locate” the writer of mixed or hybrid genres which might blend science fiction, historical fact, political comment and romance. Does the writer “belong” to more than one literary tradition — or any? Should he or she be read as sui generis? How do we understand Kidman’s contribution?

2

Veteran writer of six novels, three volumes of short stories and three of verse plus a collection of semi-autobiographical essays, not to mention her output for television and radio, Kidman’s range of style and mastery of different genres is impressive. She has said: “The imagination, invention and creation in the field of words don’t have to be fettered by any specific form.” Yet, as a popular fiction writer, she is also the conduit of social consciousness and since the publication of her first novel, A Breed of Women (1979), has chronicled the coming-of-age of women’s liberation and independence. Like her friend, the poet Lauris Edmond, to whom Ricochet Baby is dedicated, she has proselytised the new horizons for women. All her novels, including Richochet Baby, offer a message of self-empowerment. The sales of her books (8500 copies of Paddy’s Puzzle in three months; 4000 copies of Foreign Woman) confirm that she has carved out a niche, principally among women.

But Kidman’s career, coinciding with the major shift of consciousness of our times, has not determined a revolution in her practice, despite her adaptation of it to different themes and a new ideology. The historico-realist origins of her romantic fiction are strongly in evidence. What her eclecticism illustrates is the porousness of romance, its propensity to absorb other fictional and non-fictional genres. What she reveals, in focusing on women’s lives, is the social realities of a country where challenges to gender stereotypes are slow to get off the ground. However, her ability to mix contemporary comment, historical fact and poetic lyricism with fictional characters and situations ensures her appeal is broader than “a thinking women’s Mills and Boon” or “the foremost chronicler of our times” would suggest and that her style is qualitatively different from currently fashionable romance novelists such as “the Arga saga” writer, Joanna Trollope.

Kidman’s reputation as a writer about women’s liberation stems largely from the enormous impact of A Breed of Women which, in charting life from small-town shotgun marriage to divorce, announced for many the arrival of the sexual revolution here. Her second novel, Mandarin Summer (1981), is a gothic romance which owes something to Jane Eyre. Her next two were historical romances, Paddy’s Puzzle (1983), set in post-depression Hamilton and the seedy Karangahape road of World War II, a story of prostitution, exploitation and death; and The Book of Secrets (1987), a haunting, memorable winner of the Book Award for fiction in 1988, about the irrational patriarchal power of a religious leader, Norman McLeod, over the migrant Scottish women who travelled with him to Nova Scotia and on to New Zealand. The topical dramas of True Stars (1990), developing small-town politics within a national context, with roman-à-clef intrigue also defy the expectations of popular romance.

What is less commonly recognised is that in all her novels Kidman directly engages with the landscape with an affinity which is reminiscent of the local literary tradition of realism which prevailed when she was developing her craft. This element of romance, even nostalgia, signalling an incipient nationalism, identifies a vision and practice attributable to the models available to her at this time. It also explains her focus, with pathos, on figures from an earlier generation such as Nichols, Ricochet Baby’s unsung hero, a farmer whose lyrical eloquence in surveying his farm is unmatched:

In the circle of light that surrounds the farm, all the trembling knee-high grass, the beautiful clover and rye, the cocksfoot and timothy lying before him is his. It is rich and luscious and soon it will be ready to cut for hay; it ripples and shimmers and billows; it surges with the day’s early light, now purple and lavender in the shadow of a cloud, now flickering green like the feathers of a parrot.

In the rural or small-town milieu which figures prominently in Kidman’s early poetry women have an anonymous, limited role, for their lives are compromised by the hard-bitten realities and simplicities of a world still close to its pioneering origins. Kidman’s apparently tough-girl persona, therefore, epitomises a more masculine, frontier-style representation of women, as her early poem, “Return to Waipu”, suggests:

I rode into town on a Road Services bus
Like the heroine of some Western movie
The unknown stranger who yet knew all.

The attraction to a simpler, puritanically unyielding society, in which the basic facts of life are laid bare, is one obvious source of Kidman’s raw earthiness, her celebrated candour about sexual politics. Often dominating her interpretations of femininity and attitudes to liberation, this realism resurfaces, for example, in poems in Wakeful Nights such as “Bulls provide semen for breeding programmes”. In Ricochet Baby it appears in the crude shorthand of the farmers at the saleyard about Edith’s betrayal of Glass as they prod the beasts in the pen: “‘Flighty creature… Drives the boys wild. How’s the missus, Glass? Settling in, is she?’ All the time needling the animal so that it jostled the other cattle. ‘Causes a bit of trouble when she’s put to the bull, if you ask me.’” The lesson Roberta learns is to avoid the marital trap her mother was snared in.

Kidman’s depiction of a world which has no room for illusions when the dreams have been peeled away is the essence of her skill as a storyteller. It is what makes Glass’s memories of his first meetings with Edith poignant: even then, before the marriage and the changes to come, he could perceive something of her essence. Such perceptions are an outstanding strength of many Kidman short stories, in which couples encounter each other in the raw, lacking the propos that romance provides, with only their own emotional and linguistic resources.

They are traceable in all three volumes, Mrs Dixon and Friend (1983), Unsuitable Friends (1988), The Foreign Woman (1994), in the relationship between Peter and Bethany Dixon, a middle-class couple coule who have been married and divorced but are held together by children, stepchildren and other invisible ties. Peter Dixon’s new preoccupations are constantly interrupted by an apprehension of his wife and a continued attachment to her as he articulates the small emotional adjustments which couples make when no longer in tandem and whey they see apartness as well as togetherness as a modus vivendi. It is through his eyes largely that Bethany’s emotional munificence emerges, an icon of matriarchal fortitutde. The greater constraint of the short story form allows Kidman to nuance such sexual encounters, leaving them relatively unresolved., yet hitting the mark as understated, economical vignettes about relationships. In the novel, with its greater scope for variation, the impact of her extraordinary power to use men and women as reflecting mirrors of each other is sometimes dissipated.

Kidman’s versatility in writing in diverse genres and styles locate her beyond the immediate feminist era, the progress and preoccupations of which she chronicles. In reinscribing some pre-liberation attitudes and values, she suggests human nature does not really change. Her assimilation of realism in to the genre of popular women’s romance defines her strengths: her historical bias, her dramatic flair, her ear for dialogue, her refusal to shirk the harsher truths.

In many ways Kidman makes an interesting comparison with her contemporary, Marilyn Duckworth, who is also masterly in her social observations, topicality and capturing of dialogue. But Duckworth’s heroines have an autobiographical aura and they can be painfully self-deluded, their mésalliances enmeshed in cryptic situations. Kidmans’ canvas is more wide-ranging and historical, her heroines’ growth to self-knowledge more socially inflected, each novel differenty from its predecessors. Their distinctive treatment of the same social concerns, such as the theme of baby snatching, illustrates these differences. Duckworth in Leather Wings focuses on the abductor’s psychology, his relationship to the child. Kidman in Ricochet Baby, moving into family history to identify the source of disorder, reproduces a panorama, a slice of life, which revisits an important theme of the 1960s: the fate of the nuclear family at the moment at which it begins to be shattered.

In 1987 Kidman said in an interview with Marion McLeod that she had left behind historical fiction and wanted to learn more about her craft. Her new novel substantiates that effort. It is different from anything else she has written and it is funny, tender, moving and dramatic.

Janet Wilson teaches English at Otago University. 

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