Dame Fiona Kidman: Present from nation's past

Dame Fiona Kidman takes a literary trip through time, writes Nicky Pellegrino.

Dame Fiona Kidman's latest collection of short stories is gripping and substantial. Photo / Supplied
Dame Fiona Kidman's latest collection of short stories is gripping and substantial. Photo / Supplied

I met Dame Fiona Kidman a couple of years ago when we were both appearing at the Wanganui Literary Festival and she struck me then as a quietly wonderful person. There's nothing fancy-pants or showy about her, no pretension, and I think you could say the exact same thing about The Trouble with Fire (Vintage, $36.99), her latest collection of short stories.

It contains 11 longish tales, loosely linked by the theme of fire, and is divided into three parts. Wellingtonian Kidman is 71 and many of the stories in the first section of this book give me the feeling of a woman looking back over life. They are about the power of the past, its play on the present and the different perspectives we have on it.

In The Italian Boy, a writer receives a visit from an old friend which prompts her to revisit the events of her school days; threatening and romantic. Extremes takes us back to the 1970s, a time when New Zealand women had to fly to Sydney to have an abortion because it was illegal here.

In Heaven Freezes, a man remembers his first wife as his second marriage crumbles. And in Preservation, the most unlikely member of a group of girlhood friends ends up in prison.

The second section contains three linked stories tracing the generations of a family with a grim, long-buried secret. In the first, The Man From Tooley Street, a young Waikato farmer's wife disappears in the 1930s. Not until the third, Under Water, does her granddaughter discover what probably happened to her.

These are stories of fractured relationships and dislocated families; they're about the truth and how it's never a neat, easy thing. They also give a real sense of the different layers of our society; the way women's lives have changed and our choices widened immeasurably within only a few generations.

The final section of this collection contains two historical stories, both based on fact. Fragrance Rising is about Gordon Coates, who was prime minister of New Zealand in the 1920s. The Trouble With Fire tells of Lady Barker, whose book Station Life In New Zealand recorded her time living in the foothills of the Southern Alps in the late 1800s. As in all good historical fiction, individual lives are used to showcase sweeping themes, whether these are the treatment of Maori or the realities of pioneer life.

There's a gentleness and wisdom to Kidman's storytelling. Over the course of her long career, she's written more than 30 books so, when you read her work, there's a sense of being in safe hands. If there are faults in her prose, I couldn't find them; her characters, whether ordinary or not, are genuine; emotions may be restrained but they're very real.

I suspect fiction-lovers tend to prefer reading novels to short stories as there's more to get your teeth into. But these are meaty tales that feel very complete _ there isn't that let-down of being made to abandon characters just as you're getting interested in their lives.

If you're a Kidman fan, you won't be disappointed by this latest work. And if you've never read her, The Trouble with Fire is as good a place as any to start.

- NZ Herald

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