A Needle in the Heart
The six stories in A Needle in the Heart confirm Fiona Kidman’s place among the top tier of New Zealand short story writers. This is no small success as the short story has been for most of the 20th century the defining genre when it comes to measuring achievement in prose fiction. While Kidman’s professionalism and versatility meant she would always be a significant writer, she earns her place among the greats for the way she has surpassed her peers and influences to produce works authentically her own.
The distinctive quality of Kidman’s writing is hinted at by a marginal event in the title story. Some Maori strangers turn up at Queenie McDavitt’s funeral. Although they know she had lived as a white woman most of her life, they aren’t going to let her go without saying goodbye. While the unexpected visitors can’t mean much to Queenie, they leave her daughter, Esme, shaken, “as if some corner of her life had been turned over for inspection.”
This is exactly what Kidman does in her writing, turning over the corners of her characters’ lives for inspection. Appropriately, given her repeated references to gardens, gardening and farming, many of the lives turned over are like compost heaps, with heated and malodorous goings-on beneath the surface. Sometimes the events that propel the plot are the grist of less accomplished authors – a possible murder or rape – but more usually in a Kidman story the dark deeds are the subtle cruelties with which loved ones scar each other.
While Kidman can shock as well as any writer, she does so with the understanding that something ordinary, if it is meticulously observed, can be more terrible than the most graphic descriptions of blood, torn muscle and shattered bone. Take Lester Cooper’s freckled boy’s hand. When, at the beginning of the story “Families Like Ours”, his sister is made to take classes in the science laboratory where the hand was blown off (by a home-made pipe bomb), what she pictures is not the gore, but the detached member itself with its slightly bitten nails and “a piece of sticking plaster on the little finger where he had nicked himself with a chisel at woodwork class, a small wart on a knuckle, fine downy hair covering the back.”
Such an overt trauma at the start of a story isn’t characteristic of Kidman’s technique. Her most distinctive stylistic trait is the way she enters a story obliquely, like a swimmer who avoids making a splash, preferring a smooth elegant slide beneath the surface with barely a ripple.
Lester’s hand – which comes to represent everything his family loses: love, unity, a farm, a future and ultimately a life—is one of many symbols that Kidman works into her writing. The needle of the title story is a blunt piece of steel, piercing Esme’s thumb and snapping while she works as a seamstress. It disappears into her bloodstream. For much of the time it moves about undetected, only felt when Esme is pregnant, or during instances of adulterous sex that lead to conceptions. But the needle is no clumsy phallic symbol; its presence refers to the child, not the lover. While lovers become history and dim memories, Kidman’s women are most profoundly marked by the lives that they carry and bear, to which they remain inextricably bound.
This is why one question the stories address again and again is, when the ties are so strong, how does a woman adjust to the loss of a child? Loss doesn’t necessarily mean death; it may mean loss of expectation. Annie Pile holds her Down’s Syndrome child as if “he was a snake in a basket”; Flo, the “barren daughter-in-law”, the “childless woman”, retreats into silence, and fantasies of a trophy child. Many children just grow up and leave home; at other times it is the parents who go. Esme, for example, has settled for second-best with an unhappy immigrant Englishman, who subconsciously looks down on his part-Maori wife; she eventually leaves. Hers is a marriage in which adultery is explicable, but is it really so bad that she must abandon her children?
Esme seems at first to lack much emotion; as a girl she withdraws behind a curtain of hair, the same hair that falls down around her face as she takes a lover into the bed she shares with her husband. Yet her apparent detachment reveals itself as numbness, a defensive strategy for survival devised by a person bound by social roles and expectations. What her detachment masks is desperation: she is flattened by her attempts to conform to what she thinks is expected of her. Guilt makes her accept the loss of her two sons as appropriate retribution. It’s an enduring punishment. She is the uninvited guest at the back of her youngest son’s wedding. He, finally, reluctantly visits her in her lonely council flat, his angry adult defensiveness a painful reminder of everything that might have been between them. What ultimately emerges from a Kidman story is not the ability of people in families to hurt each other, but the complexity of factors that lead to such intimate cruelties.
One thing all six stories have in common is a focus on the experience of women, usually over an entire lifetime, or even lifetimes. Four are told in the third person, two in the first person. The third-person stories generally have the kind of detachment I mentioned above, created primarily by the way Kidman never centres the consciousness of the narrative, preferring to keep the point of view a fraction removed from her characters’ thoughts and emotions. The protagonists’ lives remain a little opaque, even to themselves, which has the effect of universalising their experience and emphasising their imperfect self-knowledge. In contrast, the stories told in the first person are more likely to hum with energy and delight with the unexpected. The account, surely imagined, of a distinguished writer and teacher of creative writing hitting the ton along unfamiliar country back roads in the dead of a Waikato night is one to cherish:
Then I turned the car into a racing boat of a vehicle, opening her out on the long straight roads as if she was under sail with the wind behind her. Was it the wine? Confusion? Terror at not, in the end, being where I had said I would be?
Men don’t generally come off well in Kidman’s writing, and indeed those on offer in A Needle in the Heart are as sorry a line-up as you’re likely to find. Most are perpetually bewildered by life; the father who murders his son, for example, does not do so from any grand passion or absolute conviction, but because the surface propriety of small-town New Zealand has been sundered by his adult child’s actions. The academic who has an affair with his colleague’s wife delivers less than he promises before skulking out of her life. Annie Pile’s husband responds to his wife’s postnatal depression by playing his piano. Flo’s husband Theo does his best; but in the final damning verdict, “lacked judgment in some aspects of his life … was helplessly in love with his wife and … was undeniably homely.” If there is an ideal man in a Kidman story, Theo probably comes close as one who accepts much and demands little, or Ned, Liesl’s last partner in the story “Soup”, who is an unintrusive musician with “infinite patience and sinewy beautiful hands”.
My comments about Kidman’s characterisation of men are observations, not criticisms. She does recognise that men can be as much victims as women of the constraining society she depicts, just as shackled to their roles, happy to settle for the easy route and the quiet life. But men aren’t the focus of the stories and shouldn’t be treated as such. Usually they are only relevant to the extent that their action, inaction or reaction bears on the essential crisis, the needle in the heart, affecting the female protagonist.
In this respect, Kidman’s men are very much like many of Katherine Mansfield’s male characters, relatively flat creatures serving a utilitarian purpose. And it should be noted that generally Kidman treats her male characters with more compassion than Frank Sargeson was able to find for his female characters, or, for that matter, Owen Marshall for the females in a number of his early stories. Read alongside Sargeson, Marshall, and others, it is clear that what Kidman supplies is an alternative point of view – a necessary balancing of the ledger.
I mention these other authors because it’s in the context of work by such writers that Kidman’s contribution to New Zealand literature will ultimately be assessed. It has frequently been said of Mansfield, Frame, Sargeson, Marshall and a host of others, that they write best about what they know. The same is true of Kidman – what she knows is the experience of a Pakeha woman growing up and living in suburban and small town New Zealand through the middle of the 20th century. New Zealand in these stories is a faithful amalgam of the historical, cultural and political contexts that affected her, and others like her.
Her stories document the impact of enormous social, economic, and demographic changes on such women, while at the same time family and gender roles remained relatively inflexible. It is an indictment of the rhetoric of equal opportunity that although Kidman’s stories are usually set in an earlier era, what they have to say remains relevant to our modern society – a society in which the result of efforts by so many women to balance the demands of home with work, self with family, and responsibility with independence, is not fulfilment, but exhaustion and a nagging sense of guilt. Kidman, writing from the heart of the female realm, reveals women still struggling to evade the needle.
Paul Millar teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.