Late songs, Roger Robinson

The Trouble with Fire
Fiona Kidman
Vintage, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869793593


A woman approaching her 50th wedding anniversary flies from Auckland to meet her aid-volunteer husband in Bangkok, and they fly on to Hanoi, where he becomes seriously ill with rotavirus. Their holiday, planned partly to “stalk the ghost” of Marguerite Duras, turns into a nightmare of intensive care, censorious doctors, incomprehensible language, and money and insurance problems. The woman, a writer, who is telling the story, settles into an unreal life as resident of the Sunway Hotel, drinking too much Luis Buňuel rosé. Her memories of their marriage, from its obsessively erotic beginning through its later years of fiery love and fiery anger, mingle in her mind with images from the life and novels of Duras, especially “The Lover”, and making love in a Vietnamese room with slatted blinds, their skins “like twin silks sliding together”.

“The Silks” is the best and most memorable story of Fiona Kidman’s impressive new collection, mainly because it is the most intensely focused and the most consistently charged in its writing. It’s the only story not set in New Zealand, but it will stand close to Joy Cowley’s “The Silk” as an exquisitely crafted testimony to the complexities of love in later life, when memory and desire confront the nearness of death. It may be autobiographical, I don’t know – the writer-narrator, like Kidman, has recently published her autobiography – but it is utterly convincing. It’s downright terrifying if you read it while you’re travelling, as I did.

The image of love as a troublesome fire – “That’s the trouble with fire, you never know which way it will turn” – links and deepens these otherwise very diverse stories. They range from re-imagined versions of the lives of Gordon Coates (Prime Minister 1925-28) and Lady Barker (of Station Life in New Zealand, 1870), to Arohata Women’s Prison, a poetry reading at Te Papa, and a story of high-life indiscretions in Wellington during the reign of Helen Clark.

All are in various degrees stories of memory, imaged as another kind of troublesome fire. Kidman deftly handles the ensuing complexities, as her narratives shuffle through layers of remembered experience, and often spill out chronologically from the short-story frame, sometimes in both directions, past and future. As stories, these are never just slices or glimpses. She at least twice, for instance, uses the Henry James technique of anticipating how the immediate moment will be revisited and recreated later in memory: “Later she would think she should have known then, that … they had begun their descent.” Something like four points of time are fused in that sentence. Thus memory is the ever-changing life narrative of us all.

Twenty years ago (to revisit my own narrative), in the first issue of New Zealand Books, I started a review of Maurice Gee’s The Burning Boy (another fiction smouldering with incendiary imagery) by saying it did “for Nelson what Bonfire of the Vanities did for New York”, explaining that both are novels intensely animated by locality and the workings of a distinct community. These Kidman stories are likewise vividly fixed in local habitations, from Northland to Invercargill. Setting often activates plot. There are the constrictive pressures of small-town life that shape the outcome in “The Italian Boy”, or the morning when fog closes Wellington Airport and changes two women’s lives in “Extremes”, the fall of a young suicide from the Kelburn Viaduct (“Some Other Man”), the scorching burn-offs of tussock on the Canterbury Plains in the 1860s (“The Trouble with Fire”), or the inhospitable Waikato cow paddocks simmering with hidden peat-fire that are the point of origin of three linked stories in the collection’s middle section. In each case location is intensely realised, and crucial.

One concise illustration must suffice for this fusion of setting and meaning. This one also shows how adroitly Kidman’s prose and imagery move between the lyrical and the earthily grounded. We are at Cape Kidnappers:

Just sit and watch, he would say, and you’ll learn all you need to know about love. They would watch the birds diving into the sea from a great height, sudden bolts of white-feathered light flashing from the sky. As the birds hit the water, they emerged with silver fish in their mouths. Then came an ungainly walk to the nest, delivering the fish to the family, followed by the twirling of necks that went on between couples.

Writing of this quality is not adequately represented by the book’s girly cover-image of a satin slip with a delicate hand loosely holding pink rose petals. Kidman here is a lot more than a chick-lit writer. But I’m a literary critic, not a marketing department.

I wonder, in fact, how adequate several of the standard sound-bites are to represent Kidman’s developing work. She surprises. In this collection she is as good at male sexual desire as female, which means fearlessly forthright, sometimes funny (“his cock lurched back into the fray”) and sometimes deeply understanding, as in the complex interweaving of sex, power and compassion as the springs of action for her imagined Gordon Coates. She is as sensitive to males grieving for love lost as she is to pining women. She is indeed good at rural life, but this time the everyday country folk have a disconcerting habit of moving to the city and becoming photographers, policy planners or marine biologists. The stories set in modern times, in other words, show real modern New Zealand, where city and farm are never far from each other and the same people can inhabit both. Even her Coates and her Lady Barker move between the two. This country-city interaction is one of the book’s more quietly developed themes.

Kidman surprises, too, by sometimes reminding me of Mansfield, as when she sympathetically evokes the poorer homes off Tinakori Road in the early 20th century. I half expected to find a dead carter upstairs. And she surprises by subverting a serious story with wicked comedy, when two frenziedly adulterous lovers get caught bonking in a red Audi on the Wellington town belt.

Memory, love and place: of course there is much more to this book, but the abiding impression is that these are the interwoven main concerns of a mature writer playing to the strengths of her age and experience. They give moments of wise insight. The place where you grow up “sits prickling behind [your] eyelids” through life, she says, and reworks the idea later: “The countryside of your childhood is like the palm of your hand, an indelible imprint to carry into eternity.” They give excellent moments of recollected emotion:

“I picked up handfuls of different silk, holding them to my face …. If I closed my eyes for a moment, I was overcome with a young woman’s ardour, could see the golden sheen on the back of my husband, my beloved, the play of dark and light, and I thought, M.D., you haven’t abandoned me.” (MD is Marguerite Duras.)

So the older Kidman, now in her early 70s, delivers much that is new. And it occurs to me that I have quite frequently found myself describing writers’ late work for New Zealand Books. Whether by chance, or type-casting by devious editors, I’m the man for gerontography. From memory, I have reviewed late or last works by Mervyn Thompson, Lauris Edmond, Peter Bland, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Meg Campbell, Brian Turner, Maurice Gee and Harvey McQueen.

So in welcoming a book that is certainly among Kidman’s best, it’s also worth observing that New Zealand literature in the last two decades has produced quite a few older writers (see above) who have kept working at the top of their game, way past the usual literary use-by date. Often the late work was the best, and not just good but surprisingly innovative. Think of Campbell’s Horatian letters, Thompson’s Passing Through, or Edmond’s last poems.

And now Fiona Kidman adds her own late song. On this evidence she is at a literary point when age is all gain – consummate craft, passion aplenty, the complex resonance of memory, and the edginess that comes from knowing about loss.

As for the wider trend, good work late in life among recent New Zealand authors, I’m not sure what it means. Maybe it’s something in the water. But probably it has grown from the vitality of New Zealand writing in that fertile emergent phase in the 1970s, when most of those I’ve named first flourished, including Kidman. New Zealand Books itself came, a little later, from the maturing of the same energy. For a commemorative issue, it’s a nice thought to end on.


Roger Robinson has written frequently for New Zealand Books, including its first issue 20 years ago. He co-edited The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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