Book Review: The Book Of Secrets

By Paula Green

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The Book Of Secrets by Fiona Kidman
(Vintage $29.99)

to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the first European settlers' arrival in Waipu, Vintage has published a new edition of Fiona Kidman's The Book Of Secrets. As part of the celebrations Kidman starred in a pageant on the Waipu riverbanks last month, based on the novel.

First published 25 years ago, Kidman's novel has been in print ever since, and was awarded top place in the fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards in 1986.
Kidman uses real circumstances to create a sumptuous work of fiction. She starts with Norman McLeod, a lay preacher, who led a group of disenchanted crofters from Scotland to New Zealand via Nova Scotia and Australia in the 19th century.

The man, the travels and the communities he established are based on fact and Kidman harnesses some powerful issues that add sparkling layers to the fact and fiction.

What I have always loved and admired about Kidman - from my teenage reading of A Breed Of Woman in the 1970s to the poems in Where Your Left Hand Rests and the terrific stories in The Trouble With Fire - is her steadfast commitment to women.

Yes, The Book Of Secrets illuminates an historical arc of crofter experience. Life is tough as the traditional relationship with the Scottish landowners breaks apart and some are drawn to McLeod's whiplashing tongue and his lure of new beginnings. Life is tough on the voyage to the new and life is tough in laying down new roots.

However, the novel is not simply an account of a man seeking to control every aspect of his followers' lives - charismatic, harsh, relentless. This is a novel of women struggling to exist, bearing countless children, silenced, isolated, denied any life beyond drabness and domestic labour.

It profoundly moved me on the first reading and, 25 years later, it has moved me again.
It is a novel of the entangled experience of three women: Isabella the grandmother, Annie the mother and Maria the daughter. We begin and end with the daughter, having encountered sections on the others in between.

The novel is, as the title implies, a symphony of revelations. Isabella's book of secrets allows Maria to see the past, the present and the future differently, but equally important is the way the three characters add substance to each other.

Each woman has been shaped, to some degree, by the oppressive doctrine of McLeod, yet each woman becomes something other. There is love, desire, big rebellion, little resistances, thought, speech, distance, intimacy, dreams, self-protection and loss.

Like a good wine, the novel has aged beautifully. Just one point of discord: the arrival of a young boy at the end of the book represents "a new kind of person, without allegiance to a particular group or race". I believe we still need these various allegiances to sustain who and how we are.

Kidman has blazed a trail for women as both readers and writers, perhaps more than any other New Zealand author.

Beyond politics, she cherishes story and character, and that marriage produces writing with both edge and heart. The Book Of Secrets is no exception.


Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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