Book review: The Infinite Air

By David Hill

Add a comment
Author Dame Fiona Kidman. Photo / NZPA
Author Dame Fiona Kidman. Photo / NZPA

What a character arc Jean Batten's life offers. Her progress and regress, from literally soaring achievement to huddled isolation, from heroine to recluse, is the stuff of which novels should be made. So Fiona Kidman has made one.

Batten's achievements remain astonishing. Her solo flight from England to Australia in May 1934 took 14 days, 22 hours. The fact that we can now cover the distance in just those 22 hours only underlines what an odyssey into the unforeseeable she made.

Her first attempt, in the Prince of Wales' old plane (of course), ended in a somersaulting crash on a Karachi road. Her next ended when she flew into radio masts outside Rome.

Her Gypsy Moth lost its wings. She almost lost a lip. She went back to England and started again.

It's a given that Kidman couldn't produce a poor paragraph if she tried to and this is a narrative that - I have to say it - takes wing.

It begins in Rotorua, where little Jean grew up with a picture of Louis Bleriot pinned above her cot.

It was an Edwardian childhood in a spectacularly dysfunctional circus of a family, "full of exits and entrances". Her father was a philandering, strongman dentist. One brother became a prominent actor; the other became a prominent mess. Then there's Nellie, the mother.

Jean is precocious from the start, as a musician, student, free spirit. She learns to use a compass; flies on a motorbike. Startlingly soon, she and Nellie are off to London, where she'll fly, and nothing nor nobody will stop her - this at a time when women pilots were regarded with suspicion, since "menstruation impaired their capabilities".

Descriptions of the flights are utterly compelling. Batten skims alone over oceans and continents; engine exhausts spit fire in the night; desert tribesmen surround her downed aircraft; crowds throng Sydney rooftops and sing For She's A Jolly Good Fellow as she triumphantly reaches New Zealand.

There are startling, memorable moments on and above the ground: a ruined sibling and a cave iridescent with glow-worms; a slavering dog in Majorca; days of hiding at Franz Josef; a bawling creditor in an Auckland hotel lobby.

Batten's character drives the story, and Kidman takes us into and through her complex, often agonised but unstoppable psyche. She's fierce and fragile. She's shockingly brave.

She's a media mistress from the start, always flying with powder, perfume and a little white silk number for photo shoots. She's calculating; always separate, even in intimate moments; she wants to be famous.

Jean Batten's story is the stuff of which novels could be made.
Jean Batten's story is the stuff of which novels could be made.

And she's an enigma. How did she inspire such devotion from so many, especially her driven and driving mother, who's beside her for much of the book? How did she manage the Champagne-sipping public persona when she was so often racked by despair and isolation?

The Infinite Air is full of famous faces.

The Prince of Wales has his stalk-on bit. Bleriot, Freda Stark, Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson ("a plain woman ... with a large nose and an over-long upper lip") all appear.

It's always rewarding when women meet in Kidman's fiction, and there are excellent moments here as they support, condescend, manoeuvre.

At the novel's end, the re-invented, faintly grotesque Batten is back in 1980s' Auckland for a book-signing session. On a previous visit, she'd hired a white, chauffeur-driven limousine for her celebrity visit to one brother.

Now the crowds are smaller, the world has altered and the other brother only has time for a brief glance at her. It's a moment of great pathos, and it encapsulates Kidman's understanding of this damaged, dauntless woman.

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman (Random House $37.99).

- NZ Herald

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 21 Oct 2014 17:33:04 Processing Time: 499ms