Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Breed Apart

This book is audacious because the author is audacious and because her first novel A Breed of Women published in 1979 was considered wildly audacious. With Sharon Crosbie telling her radio listeners: ‘Darlings I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for. This book is about us. We’re all in it', A Breed of Women by Fiona Kidman was snapped up by 9,000 buyers in three days and continued to sell well for years afterwards.

After reading At the End of Darwin Road (2008) I had to read A Breed of Women, and what do you know, I found a first edition hardback for sale on Trademe for $9 today. So I bought it. [It’s one of the first 9,000 hopefully.] The Book Council website tells us A Breed of Women is the story of an unconventional young woman’s confrontations with a narrow-minded small town society characterised by the grim judgment, ‘There’s no way outa Ohaka, ’cept by flying young, or dying here.’

Fiona knows small town NZ society – she was in it in Kerikeri as a child, Waipu as a teen and Rotorua as a young woman. In her memoir, she talks of the trouble she had conforming. Always feeling like an outsider looking in, she yearned to be a real writer and worked her way up from book reviewer through play and script writer to poet to novelist. It was tough going at times and Fiona has met with her fair share of humiliation, antagonism and maliciousness along the way, but she stuck to her knitting --actually she confesses to disliking knitting -- make that her two-finger typing, and is now a Dame and in 2006 she was the Katherine Mansfield fellow in Menton.

At the End of Darwin Road is the first part of Fiona’s memoir. It explores her life up to the publication of Mandarin Summer and the death of her father, but it also skips back and forward to the place she wrote the book: Menton France. It is a fascinating, unsettling and moving exploration of a woman writer at a time in New Zealand of tremendous social change, when being a woman writer was more of a dream than a reality. Fiona is a recent friend of mine [both of us have written novels set on Arapawa Island which led to the meeting], but until I read At the End of Darwin Road I didn’t know how privileged I was to be able to say that. Recommended.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mary

I was sorry to miss your conversation with Fiona Kidman. When I first purchased ‘At the end of Darwin Road’ – it was more curiosity about the Wellington writing scene than anything, but very quickly I was enthralled in the journey and the making of a writer (as opposed to juicy gossip which Fiona tactfully avoids). It sent me off to find ‘A Breed of Women’ which I found (it is out of print I think) and which I hadn’t read back in the late seventies. It sure stands the test of time. It reflects not only the journey of a writer, but also the cultural, political morays of a time not so far back and possibly still true for some women… and I was engrossed in Harriet’s life – I liked her as a character (most of the time) and enjoyed her journey – actually, I hadn’t felt quite so “attached” to a character in a novel for quite some time. As writers, we often read books with an eye to the construction, descriptions, language etc, and in this instance, I was fully engaged with the character and forgot about anything else - which was lovely. And, from what I’ve heard from people who were at your “conversation” with Fiona, she got quite a bit of flak back then about the book – seems hard to believe, but interesting to know this. I look forward to the second part of her memoir.

And good luck to you Mary at Writers and Readers in Auckland - you lucky woman!

Mary McCallum said...

Dear Maggie! It's good to see you've negotiated the minefield of blog posting. Shame you have to be anonymous though. Thank you for your comments on A Breed of Women, it was hearing you'd read it after Darwin Road that sent me off to Trademe. I must say wetalegs has sent me a lovely crisp copy and so carefully wrapped! It almost smells fresh off the press. Nice to see the young Fiona looking out from the slipcover at the back. I'm going to enjoy reading it. It does seem strange now to think it caused such a stir -- how provincial we were, eh? But there on page one is Harriet musing on her love affair. Go Fiona!

Anonymous said...

Heya Mary,

That sounds like a really interesting book. I grew up in a small town, and do remember bigotry and a great deal of pressure to fit in with everyone else, be stupid, get a factory job, never amount to anything.
I actually hated alot of it, but never mind me.
And now I feel like I might be trapped in a country that I aren't enjoying as much as I have in the past.
Might see you at class tomorrow, probably won't...
Gonna focus on adjusting reality to achieve my desires tomorrow, sorry about that, I think the email says it all.