By Fiona Kidman
Random House, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Anne Brown

IN A NZ Listener interview with Dame Fiona Kidman in 2005, Denis Welch concluded by asking her whether there would be a sequel to her Montana Book Award-winning novel, The Captive Wife. Kidman replied that she felt at her age she didn’t have the time left to do the research involved in another historical novel.

“I’m starting to get into that dangerous age of thinking about memoirs, which might be my next project.” Three years later the ‘project’ is finished. At the End of Darwin Road is both an absorbing personal narrative and a valuable record of becoming writer at a time of significant social change in New Zealand.

Born in 1940, Kidman is the only child Hugh and Flora Eakin. Her father emigrated to New Zealand in 1929 with the dream of becoming a member of the landed gentry. The closest he gets is a small piece of land on Darwin Road in Kerikeri, bought with money his wife had saved from his air force pay during the war. The nine years Kidman spends in Kerikeri are deeply formative: most of her schooling takes place, she meets her best friend, Madeleine, and her imagination is captured by the exotic local population of British ex pats, fictionalised in her second novel Mandarin Summer.

Much of the book provides snapshots of social history. In a chilling episode Kidman, a sickly baby, is whisked away to a Karitane Hospital. Her mother is declared ‘unfit’ and she is not reunited with her child until months later. The sophistication of nights out in the dance halls in late-fifties Rotorua, including Howard Morrison singing at Tamatekapua, is in sharp contrast to Kidman’s description of her sexual initiation. “I had dispensed with my virginity, or rather someone had helped himself to it.” Kidman’s later support of Sisters Over Seas (SOS), helping women to get to Australia to have abortions, is unsurprising.

The thread that links all these incidental events is her development as a writer. As a six year old, Kidman discovered the power of the written word. In a plaintive note to her mother, written from hospital, she writes: “ Dont figit to cum and git me….. I hat the fode that is why I wont to cume home.” After the success of the letter, Kidman decided ‘writing works.’ As with Janet Frame, Kidman’s first work was published in a newspaper’s children’s pages, in her case those of the New Zealand Herald. She and her friend Madeleine, to whom Mandarin Summer is dedicated, also wrote and published an annual magazine.

However, it’s not until she is a wife and mother living in the suburbs of Rotorua in the early sixties that she begins writing in earnest. After attending a week-long seminar at Auckland University for women writers, Kidman returns “in a state of exaltation and with new determination.” She buys her first typewriter and presents herself to the editor of the Daily Post as a potential book reviewer. Instead he gets her to “run the book page”, including writing all the reviews, for 12/6d a page.

Advice given to aspiring writers is to read. Reviewing 500 books over the next six years must have exposed Kidman to a wealth of writing, including more and more fiction by New Zealand writers. To the reviews were added short stories, radio and television plays and “all those things that can be written in short bursts,” to fit into her busy home life.

In the preface, Kidman explains that although some names have been changed this is not important as there are “quite enough recognisable people in it.” These people come from television and radio; they are writers, academics, producers and directors, all in some way connected with writing. References to literary, academic and media figures at various stages of their careers abound. Keith Sinclair became a friend and mentor but not lover, despite a rumour spread by Frank Sargeson. Her close friendship with Lauris Edmond is enriching, just as the loss of this friendship for a period bemuses Kidman. Sharon Crosbie began one of her National Radio morning sessions with this promotion of Kidman’s first novel A Breed of Women. “Darlings, I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for. The book is about us. We’re all in it.” Crosbie’s last words could be about At the End of Darwin Road, with its full coverage of life in Wellington in the seventies.

Comprehensive as the content is, the memoir is selective. In focusing on her development as a writer there are gaps in other areas. Her children, Giles and Joanna, appear sporadically, leaping ahead in age somewhat disconcertingly for the reader. In 1970, the family moves to Wellington for her husband’s new job at Naenae College. Kidman foreshadows this period with the comment “In the 1970s, Ian and I went to hell and back.” What this ‘hell’ involved specifically is left largely to the reader to deduce. Her husband, although ‘dubious’ about her need to write, is a very supportive, if somewhat shadowy figure. The culprit seems to be Wellington with its stimulating new social life.

After hosting one particularly eventful party Ian says, “I can’t do any more of this. No more parties.” Tellingly this is one of the few examples of direct speech from Ian. Whatever the ‘hell’ was her husband’s support is steadfast. “This is the story of my life - Ian walking towards me, never away. There were times when he might have. I don’t know whether anyone else would have stayed.”

Kidman wrote At the end of Darwin Road during her year in Menton as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in 2006. Initially I found the switches of focus to Menton intrusive. However, the cumulative effect emphasises a clear-eyed reliving of the past, taking place in a foreign setting. As Kidman says, “Memory can be difficult sometimes.”

The most poignant example of this fusion of past and present is Kidman’s description of her side trip to Ireland. She weeps as she flies out; finally she is to visit the land of her father’s family, and test the truth of his stories. She had been sceptical about the house of his childhood but she finds it just as he described. “My father’s stories, and the strange emotional catch he got in his voice when he spoke of Ireland, made sense to me now.”

Unlike The Captive Wife, this time there will be a sequel, or second volume. “...this is only the beginning. What followed after I left broadcasting and took charge of my life, when I at last believed that I had earned the right to call myself a writer, is another story again.” I look forward to it.