Monday, September 2, 2013

Something Old

This week’s “Something Old” is written by a guest reviewer, the distinguished poet Siobhan Harvey, whose work has been published widely both in New Zealand and overseas. English-born, but long-time New Zealand resident, Siobhan Harvey teaches creative writing and her poetry reflects a keen interest in the topics of cultural identity, parenthood, and childrearing. Harvey has been Featured Poet in Poetry New Zealand and her major collection Lost Relatives was published in 2011. She also edited Words Chosen Carefully (Cape Catley, 2010), a book of author interviews. In this “Something Old” she reflects on a New Zealand novel with a strong socio-political theme.

“TRUE STARS” by Fiona Kidman (first published by Random Century, 1990) Review by guest reviewer Siobhan Harvey.

Writing in Landfall 175, reviewer Colleen Reilly said of Fiona Kidman’s 5th novel,

“True Stars is a passionate novel about political corruption, New Zealand-style. The novel relies on the assumption that readers will feel as angry and depressed about the state of the nation as its author does.
Characters, situations, dialogue and chapter-structure exist primarily to illustrate New Zealand’s ‘fall from grace’, as it has been called by more than one commentator on the contemporary scene. For some that fall began decades ago. For Kidman and the generation she and her characters represent, it began with 1981.” (Colleen Reilly, ‘True Stars’ in Landfall 175, September 1990, page 384).   

Perhaps, written, like the novel, so close to the conclusion of the subject-matter, the Lange Government 1984-1990, this reviewer’s limp endorsement of Kidman’s True Stars isn’t surprising. After all Reilly’s off-centre summation of the book as “one writer’s consciously crafted plea for ‘the way things were’, or might have been, or should be” was arrived at without the benefits of time or distance, the review’s focus upon the book in relation to the contemporaneous (indeed perpetually contemporaneous) rosy view of the political past as a more scrupulous epoch thereby somewhat understandable (Colleen Reilly, ibid.). Moreover it was True Stars lot in life to follow its author’s 1988 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction winner, The Book of Secrets. Like a sibling arriving and forever playing ‘catch-up’ with a silver-spooned sister, True Stars appearance after The Book of Secrets (recently re-released to celebrate its 25th anniversary) no doubt also helps explain the former’s continual overlooking as a novel of real skill and merit not just in the Kidman oeuvre, but in the more broader landscape of New Zealand fiction. Twenty-three years after the publication of True Stars, it is time to reassess its position in the opus of one of our most celebrated and famous of authors, and also to re-evaluate the novel’s place as rare, successful example of its genre, one which speaks less of its era per se and more of government, ideology and loyalty observed irrespective of party, time or place.
A synopsis of True Stars reads more like mystery than political and social critique of a landmark domestic and global epoch. Middle-aged Rose Kendall, once a fearless, forthright social campaigner, now an MP’s wife, is being secretly stalked. Her shadowy pursuant is doing all they can to scare her out of her community: endless abusive, late-night phone-calls; insidious attacks on personal, domestic possessions; even a break-and-enter into her home. Had she her family around her, a score of nearby acquaintances and/or a plethora of benevolent locals, her security might be assured. But her husband, Kit, too busy with the minor politics of Wellington, is absent from his constituency. Her fraught relationships with her children have driven them abroad. And Kit’s disloyalty and duplicity towards his district party workers and constituents means that Rose is not only shunned but actively derided by those she once called friends and neighbours.

Underpinning all this, of course, is the theme of community versus the individual. It’s the basic tenet of the transformative Lange years, a fault-line shift in thinking from the post war era of protectionism (of society and the economy). And so, it’s here, on distinctly subtle levels that the authorial analysis of dogma and of the 1980s battle between, for want of more specific terminology, socialism and conservatism occurs.  True Stars is a deconstruction of the role and affairs of state as well as the importance of culture and cooperation, but not so in the biting, melodramatic satire of similar international books of the times, like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but in a more moderate, personal, (dare I say it) female-minded manner.

Conflict, personal and political, that often unrecognized Kidman motif, sits at the heart of this novel. As the author’s first book, A Breed of Women reminds us, for Kidman often the private conflict is political. In True Stars this is certainly so too. Indeed, we open the novel with an exposition of just how entwined and multilayered conflicts are for this novel and this author:

Imagine: picture this. Kit Kendall weeping, with his head down, in his parliamentary office.
Kit, who had listened to the Beatles, marched in protest against the Vietnam War, fallen in love once by moonlight, cried when Kennedy was shot, written poems in treetops and saved forests from destruction. Today, he could hear only the roar of the crowd, and it was not for him.” (Fiona Kidman, True Stars, Random Century, 1990, page 1).

Whereas A Breed of Women, over- and under-toned with the feminist creed ‘the personal is political’, focused upon a group of women’s lives besieged by the clashes between career, motherhood, children and freewill, the social and governmental fights, struggles and inconsistencies in True Stars influence and shape both genders. Kit Kendall, the financially over-rewarded politician from the mid-country constituency of Weyville, man and seat once symbolic of the sea change opposition to outmoded, culturally intolerant policies promulgated by the Muldoon government, has become a contradiction, conflict personified through his repeated decisions to put Party before electorate, Party before family.  In essence then the novel opens with Kendall’s private “mid-life crisis” and his public variance with the Weyville Labour apparatchiks and voters. If these tangled collisions were not significant enough – for character and the unfolding plot – the deeper the reader traverses into True Stars the clearer the realization that Kidman is using these twin entangled elements as a symbol for a higher purpose – the downfall of the Lange government and, written as this novel was in the white heat of that administration’s demise, the ruin of idealism, the collapse of political and existential purpose.

The other quality of this novel, one true of all its author’s books, is character portrayal. The 1980s turned communalists into capitalists. It takes a lot of skill and patience to successfully evoke a core caste which embody and convincingly “live” this incongruity. In Kit and Rose, Kidman comes up trumps. Late in the piece, the paradoxes of Labour rule, government versus personal allegiance and, more privately, marriage becoming increasingly apparent like a conjunction of major fault-lines, Kidman focuses upon the latter, the domestic strife to speak of and symbolize the civic, and in so doing expose the fractures of the period everywhere obvious to we contemporaries but blindly ignored by many who lived them:

Rose dreamed as she lay sleeping in a cool room at Delphi while the midday sun blazed down outside. She dreamed that she was in Wellington, dancing on a marble table top in the foyer of Parliament Buildings.
When she woke, her pillow was wet as if she had been crying in her sleep for a long time. Not that this was immediately clear to her for at first she believed what she had dreamed was true, seeing it all with an absolute and terrifying clarity. She saw Kit standing beside her, and his face was dark with rage. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ she whimpered. ‘Please Kit, I didn’t mean to make you angry.’
‘You made me look stupid, you promised that you wouldn’t ever do anything like that again.’
‘I was dancing. I felt so gay.’
‘Everyone looked.’
‘They were all having fun too.’
‘Funny, yes. They were laughing at you.’
‘They’ll have forgotten by tomorrow.
‘I won’t. I won’t ever.’
‘Here’s my ring. Take my ring. It’s all I’ve got.’” (Fiona Kidman, ibid., page 156).

Such complexly drawn figures and their encounters are matched by many others in True Stars, including Rose’s hardened, bitter sister Katrina, alienated friend Toni and snide government minister Rex Gamble. But, if this is an intricate study of characters present in the narrative, it’s also an examination in characters absent from the work. Lange and Douglas are never drawn; yet their beings and behaviours hang intangibly over everything in True Stars. A literary example, as it were, of attendance through absence.

All in all, True Stars is heady stuff, and moreover, a symbol of that rarest form of narrative written in New Zealand before or since, the political novel. Such rarity, particularly concerning such a radical era and its political leaders, continues to surprise this writer. To look back at the Fourth Labour Government, the purity of its dogma, the innate contradictions of its convictions, its near-mythical high command, and find that few of our writers have considered the social, governmental and financial melting pot that Lange and his offsiders created, wittingly or otherwise, a subject worthy of their work perplexes.  We need more books like True Stars written in New Zealand. Brave books by writers brave enough to deconstruct the social and political mores and dilemmas of their times and leaders. In this we need to value True Stars much more than we have hitherto done.

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