All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman (Penguin Random House NZ, 2016), 319 pp., $38
I am almost ashamed to admit that I have only ever read one other book written by Dame Fiona Kidman, and that was way back in my teens when her first novel, A Breed of Women, was published in 1979. A ‘grown up’ book which, as a first-year university student, I knew I should be embracing, but which unfortunately, due to a complete lack of any life experience, I just did not get. Oh dear, how embarrassing to even admit that. Since then, I have read nothing of this writer – probably even more shameful. But after reading this latest work of Dame Fiona’s, I want to read them all. The request to the local library has been made for Songs from the Violet Café, and I have dug out from my enormous pile of unread books The Infinite Air, her previous novel about Jean Batten, and it is now placed smack bang on top of the pile of ‘to be read in the very near future’.
What a national treasure this woman is. She writes fiction novels and short stories, poetry, memoirs – yes, more than one – and film scripts. She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her writing; she has been involved in the advancement of New Zealand writing. She is 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 this latest book collectively takes all these past stories, including fragments from her own life story, and seamlessly stitches them together into a moving, acutely observed chronicle of a family over a 60-plus year period.
There is history too, in this novel, even if it is in the very recent past for many people in New Zealand. Those of us who remember and perhaps even took part in the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour, will recall it as a traumatic, divisive time, even though it lasted only 56 days. The tour has a prominent part to play in this book. Less prominent but of equal import in the story and plot are a variety of other events that were crucial to the times, if not necessarily so to the characters: the 1951 waterfront dispute, the death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk in 1974, the Ruth Richardson ‘Mother of All Budgets’ in 1991, the United Women’s Convention of 1975 – these are just a few of the milestones that are peppered throughout this novel, and lend enormous authenticity to the characters, their actions and lives.
At the center of this story is a family, torn apart even before it had begun by the death of Andrew Sandle somewhere over the Pacific shortly before WWII ended. Like many after the war, his widow Irene faced raising a child alone. Irene, however, does have some spunk, and in 1952, with six-year-old Jessie in tow, she strikes out to go tobacco picking in Motueka in order to make enough money to get her own place back in Wellington, and to ensure independence from her parents. Her plan is to find a job in the capital to replace the one she lost when soldiers returned from the war, and the land girls returned to the towns and cities. None of this goes to plan of course, and by the end of the first chapter, some 30 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 turns out to be. But what can one do? Barely coping with one child and with a second on the way, in choosing to marry a man (Jock) and make what she saw as the best of a bad situation, Irene was hardly unusual for her time.
We jump to the 1970s. Irene has died leaving Jock with four children, the oldest – Jessie – now 17. Irene’s death is the defining event in the narrative of the novel, and in the lives of the four children. Enter the stepmother, a figure who often starts as a housekeeper, a widowed friend, a neighbour, or just a lonely woman seeking an opportunity to change her life and who, more often than not, is ill equipped to take on the upbringing of another woman’s grieving children. This stepmother is Charm, a name she does not live up to.
Jock and Charm really are the most awful pieces of work who make the childen’s a total misery. Jessie makes her escape and doesn’t really feature in the rest of the novel. However, her shadow is always there as the big sister who ran away, deserting the other children.
It would give away too much of the plot to say what happens to Belinda, Grant and Janice. Suffice to say that collectively, there is teenage pregnancy, banishment, adoption, marriage, child sexual and physical abuse, racism, bigotry, what would probably be diagnosed now as dyslexia, depression and mental illness, domestic violence, drugs and imprisonment. Wow – you hooked now? You want to read this? A phenomenal amount of action packed into 318 pages! And 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 60 years or so in our society, and how attitudes have changed – to women working and having real careers, for example, something that was almost unheard of in the 1970s; to women having control over their reproduction, again only just getting underway in the 1970s; to unmarried mothers, teen mothers, adoption; to children with learning difficulties.
However, the whole of All Day at the Movies is a bit of a whirlwind, even if the weaving of history, images of how we lived and worked over the decades, and the story-making are so expertly and immaculately done. It is very like a movie where a story is compacted to its essential components with much implied by the words and actions. A lot of the novel is like vignettes, snapshots of the lives of the characters. There is much missing or implied, minor characters are important for small sections, then disappear – I would love to know more about the marriage of Irene and Jock, for example. At the end of one chapter she has decided to marry; within a couple of pages of the next chapter she is dead. Further on in the story, a baby is adopted out, and the reader learns a considerable amount about the adoptive parents. The baby, very distressingly for this couple, is returned to the mother, and yet that is the end of the couples’ involvement in the story. I would love to have known if they ever did adopt another child. A group of four middle-aged ladies are caught up in a cannabis kerfuffle; one makes a decision that has terrible consequences for another character. What happened to her? How did she live with the decision she made? All these characters and episodes have a huge impact on the story, yet they are done away with so quickly and neatly in the telling. So many more stories to be told, and yet frustrating not to be told more.
Is this a minor criticism? Probably. 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, marginalised, 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. She suggests that despite the 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 at the way women have had to fight for an equal place in 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 – the tragedies of this novel, as happens in many families, but in the final pages there is a reunion of sorts, realistically awkward, which does give hope for the future of this fractured family.
I really liked this book not only for its storytelling qualities, but also for its vivid imagery of our recent history, right down to finely observed details of what was being served for dinner, clothes worn, cars driven, TV programmes – so much nostalgia! Yet it is these small details, the detritus of everyday life, that are so effective at evoking moments in time. I truly hope this book is very widely read – it deserves to be. Is this Dame Fiona’s best book? I have no idea, but with my grand reading plans unfolding as I write, I am going to have a great time finding out.
FELICITY MURRAY blogs about books at kiwiflorareads.blogspot.com. She has a BA in history, a post-graduate diploma in banking, and a diploma in horticulture. She also does biography writing and compilations for terminally ill patients.