The Trouble with Fire by Fiona Kidman (Random House, 2011) 302 pp. $36.99.
‘That’s the trouble with fire, you never know which way it will turn.’ So says Alice Scott, a young visitor to the 1860s Canterbury farm of Annie and Frederick Broome in the title story of Fiona Kidman’s latest collection, The Trouble With Fire. The random, haphazard energies of fire noticed by Alice might stand for the nature of storytelling itself, the way stories flicker from person to person.
In Kidman’s hands fire becomes a potent and magical symbol threading through her narratives as she sets about illuminating the domestic lives of ordinary New Zealanders. Kidman spins skeins that cross from the colonial to the postcolonial, the provincial to the metropolitan, from mother to daughter, and then criss-cross back again. Just as fire sparks, spreads, and simpers, so too she displays an ability to seize on aspects of her scenarios and enlarge upon them to suit her larger purpose again and again in this collection.
The eleven stories are divided into three sequences. Part I is made up of six distinct episodes, featuring characters we can recognise as present-day city-dwellers, grappling with issues from the past; Part II centres more closely on a single event which may or may not have occurred on a Waikato farm during the Great Depression; and Part III fictionally recreates scenes from the lives of two ‘real-life’ historical figures. The ‘Fire’ of the title moves from the literal to the figurative, offering fires in the bush, and underground, and in the distance; but it also becomes an index of extreme emotion: adolescent lust, homicidal anger, malicious envy.
The fiery power of ‘storytelling’ is evident everywhere, starting with the opening story, ‘The Italian Boy’. The make-believe gossip that surrounds the Italian boy of the title and Hilary, a young girl in small-town New Zealand in the mid-twentieth century, acts to shroud like smokescreen the real incestuous passion between the brother and sister bullies of her childhood. Only years later, following a visit from her school-friend Meryl, does Hilary confirm that the ‘pregnancy’ which preceded her departure from the town was merely the spiteful fancy of a fifteen-year old girl.
Storytelling is a hot and molten art form, with the volatile capacity to flare and die away, to generate different intensities of emotion according to ever-shifting contexts. The breakdown in communication between a husband and wife pair is the first sign that all is not right for these New Zealand visitors to Vietnam in ‘Silks’. As soon as the husband is quarantined in a local hospital this absence of understanding transmutes into a nightmare of cross-cultural (mis)translation where, in the absence of a shared oral language, every mute gesture becomes imbued with impossible significance. The land itself tells of other stories.
If the intense power of storytelling to carry us through hard times is not renewed by a fresh spark of some kind, it must inevitably fail and be extinguished. Trouble brews for the lovers in ‘The History of It’ when they squabble over the number of children they are supposed to have between them, at least as far as they construct their (false) story for others. Eventually, the actual loss of another child signals their passion for one another is over.
Sometimes trouble arises from what we choose to read into something. For Simon in ‘Heaven Freezes’, a single moment in the car-park of his local supermarket precipitates the end of his second marriage, but it’s also an epiphany — it allows him to finally acknowledge the truth regarding the end of his first marriage.
At other times, trouble lies in wait when we refuse to acknowledge something that is right in front of us. When the fire-spotter husband in ‘Extremes’ fails to recognise the key signs of his wife’s adultery, the child she unexpectedly delivers registers their different kinds of infidelity — the husband’s failure of observation, the wife’s literal unfaithfulness — in her appearance. The nickname he bestows upon the child, ‘firebug’, registers the threat of illicit sexual combustibility in a long-term, seemingly stable marriage.
For Rachel, the other expectant mother in ‘Extremes’, the story of the termination of her love child – a ‘lump of tissue’ which has resulted from a quick ‘office shag’ – is marginalised and eclipsed by the birth announcement which declares the safe arrival of a son to her one-time lover and his wife. Just as she imagines her lost child would have carried the revealing fire-orange hair of its father, Mark, so Rachel soon discovers that the stain of illicit passion is impossible to erase from the genealogy of her life story.
The disfigured appearance of an unwanted child also informs the truncated narrative of a vanished mother in Part II of the collection. When the adoptive parents of an illegitimate newborn return her because of an unsightly birthmark on her face and neck, the act of rejection reverberates through the generations, and for readers as well. As we move from ‘The Man From Tooley Street’ on to ‘Some Other Man’ and finally ‘Under Water’, readers witness family members rhythmically re-write and re-erase the story of the woman’s disappearance, much like the fires which sporadically reignite and recede underneath the farm where the family resides. Yet since a missing body forestalls closure of any kind, the end of the third story in Part II paradoxically directs us back to the beginning.
The final section, Part III, is the most explicit in acknowledging the self-renewing fire of storytelling as it ‘fictionalises’ episodes from the lives of both Gordon Coates — Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1925–1928 — and Lady Barker, the famous colonial writer. In the last, eponymous, story, Kidman rephrases scenes from Barker’s memoir Station Life in New Zealand (1870). Arguably, the dual third-person/first-person narration here illustrates the impossibility of any final narrative authority when it comes to the telling of New Zealand tales.
The stories in this collection are written with unrushed clarity, unforced compassion, and unmannered economy. Fiona Kidman is a veteran storyteller whose intuitive brilliance is undeniably in evidence throughout The Trouble With Fire.
AZURE RISSETTO is currently pursuing her PhD in English Literature at the University of Auckland.