All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman.
Auckland: Random House NZ, Vintage (2016).
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.
2016 has been a productive year for Dame Fiona Kidman, with the publication of two new books. The tenth novel from one of New Zealand’s most distinguished writers, All Day at the Movies, combines Kidman’s assured, seamless writing style with her characteristic preoccupations and recurrent themes: women’s experience (often in the face of conformism), intergenerational histories, and the sometimes complex relations between past and present. The personal stories of the book’s main characters are delineated against the backdrop of our changing nation.
The opening of the novel introduces a period in the life of Irene Sandle, who arrives in Motueka in 1952 to pick tobacco, accompanied by her daughter Jessie. Subsequently the story almost exclusively centres on Irene’s other children, Belinda, Janice, and Grant, as they reach adulthood and grow older, living very disparate lives: Belinda as a married woman with a career, Janice as a perpetual runaway from sexual violence, and Grant as a complex drifter. While the story embraces other figures –friends, lovers, children, a social worker – Jessie mainly functions as a sort of structuring absence. This unusual shift works, but readers who are familiar with Kidman’s earlier Songs from the Violet Café (Vintage, 2003), in which Jessie is the main character, will find richer meaning and connections in All Day at the Movies.
The action moves through a range of New Zealand locations – from Turangi, to the upper Hokianga, to the Mackenzie country – reflecting its author’s interest in conveying a sense of New Zealand as a whole. But it is broadly centred on Wellington, where the Sandles start out and where Belinda makes her home for many years. Kidman’s descriptive passages of her settings are instantly recognisable, while retaining the fresh observations which make her writing so satisfying to read:
There’s an ocean at the end of the street where she lives, with a bright dark sea
washing against a wall in summer, a sea that turns violent when the wind turns to
the south and spume fills the air, a small deserted island lying offshore.
Although largely linear, the narrative tends to circle back to the central concerns and formative life-events of the main protagonist, Belinda, as she ruminates on them in later years. “Over and again, Belinda replays scenes that have stayed with her for a lifetime, ones that prickle before her eyelids just before she wakes, no matter where she is” (p 44). While it technically spans a period from the early 1950s to 2015, much of the narrative centre of the novel takes place in the seventies and early eighties – the other decades are visited in a chapter apiece. Each chapter comprises a collection of scenes, and Vintage has added a whimsical, homely touch to this generously-sized edition with the use of section break symbols in the form of hand-drawn buttons (a reference to a recurrent motif in the story).
The novel’s structure is episodic but necessarily elliptical, enabling the author to examine in some detail the thoughts and events in her protagonists’ lives while still maintaining an epic temporal and geographic scope. The effect of this combination is that the reader is presented with a series of episodes that are almost like vignettes, often introducing minor characters with considerable depth. In result, All Day at the Movies feels like moments from real lives, lives that we don’t always understand but that are nevertheless vivid and solid. This sense is aided by the author’s sure ear for New Zealand speech, heard for instance in Grant’s subjective point of view: “She was a dumb kid, with her wonky face, but he missed her, the last anchor to what passed as home. She’d gone off with some bloke, he’d been told […]” (p 127).
As in many of her earlier novels, Kidman is particularly interested in articulating the lived experiences of the women of her generation, often giving voice to what was once disenfranchised and unspoken. Belinda’s painful experience as a young unmarried woman who is sent away to give birth is poignant:
They let her hold him for a few moments, then he was taken away so quickly
she didn’t really know what he looked like. She struggled to clear her brain, to
retain the image of him, as though she could somehow stamp it on her retina
and summon it up whenever she wanted, for the rest of her life (p 82).
In general, Kidman skilfully handles the intersection between the personal and the national. For me, this interplay is perhaps drawn more clearly in the lives of middle-class characters than it is in that of the poorer sibling, Janice, whose relative poverty seems almost timeless and is more evidently affected by forces such as domestic violence rather than, say, the neoliberal economic reforms mentioned in Belinda’s segments. But the novel paints a compelling, recognisable portrait of the nation, for example in this description of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests:
The streets are running with blood, the police are marching on the people.
They’re using their batons to smash in heads, the hospitals are overflowing,
children are turning against their parents, and parents against their children. It
is so nearly spring and the front gardens of narrow Wellington houses tucked
cheek by jowl next to each other are illuminated by kowhai in flower (p 169).
All Day at the Movies is an ambitious, highly readable book which successfully combines the personal and intimate with the wider sweep of our changing nation. While it will strike a special chord of recognition for those of the same generation as its protagonists, it is certain to engross a wide range of readers.
Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in various publications including Poetry NZ, Landfall, Brief and takahē. She also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film, Television, and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.
First published takahe 88