Songs From the Violet Café by Fiona Kidman

Dame Fiona Kidman is one of New Zealand’s most prolific and highly acclaimed authors. Her work has recently been brought back to light, published in the UK by Gallic Books.

In 2016, I read her excellent novel on the life of the NZ aviator and Queen of the Skies, Jean Batten, The Infinite Air and later the same year picked up a copy of the historical fiction novel The Captive Wife, a tale of the first European woman to settle in the South Island of New Zealand, a whaler’s wife who underwent a dramatic ordeal, that Kidman imagines between the pages of her compelling novel.

Songs From the Violet Café novel begins and ends with chapters set in 2002, with independent events that take place on the same night, near each other. In Part One, an old boat laden with personal items, private notes and other paraphernalia is set alight and pushed out onto the lake, providing a spectacle for the family and their friends gathered for the occasion.

One puts in a bundle of letters; her sly smile and the nod of appreciation from the other women tell him that they are love letters. Another adds a calendar for what she says was a very bad year, someone else a stained quilt, another some yellowed school books. His wife’s best friend whispers to her son that it’s his last year’s school reports and he need never see them again.

The last Part sees nearly all the characters who worked in the Violet Café during 1963-64 on the same shores of that stretch of water, Lake Rotorua in New Zealand. They have come together again, all these years later, to commemorate the life of their patron, Violet Trench, owner.

In Part Two, it is 1943 and a boat rows across the lake with a woman and a young child. The woman is Violet and she is bringing a boy across to her first employer Hugo, a man whose wife she helped nurse through her last days before death. Now Hugo is married to Ming, a Chinese immigrant who also lost her husband, he has helped her raise her two sons and the one they have together.

‘Tell her,’ said Ming through her son, ‘that children are without price here. They are not for trade. ‘ She took the money Violet had given her earlier, and laid it on the table beside the unwashed plates.
The woman’s hand flew to her mouth. ‘I can’t take him back.’ she said.
The two little boys had thrown their arms around each other, nuzzling with tender blind-eyed butting as they shifted in their sleep.
‘The boy stays,’ Ming said, ‘but we do not buy.’

In Part Three we meet all the girls who will come under Violet’s wing, it’s 1963 and we encounter the girls through their mother’s, beginning with Jessie. About to turn eighteen, she is living in Wellington with her mother, stepfather and half-siblings, it is the day before she will leave her law studies and family behind, boarding a bus for a random northern destination, which happens to be Rotorua. Searching for food she will stumble across the café and be taken in by Violet.

Everything her mother did had a cost. Jessie didn’t know why she hadn’t seen this before. But now she understood in an instant that this was how it had always been, ever since her mother married Jock. If it hadn’t been for her, perhaps her mother might have married better the second time around. Jock, she could see, was the price her mother paid for being alone and having a child, for not always living as a war widow.

We meet Sybil and her daughter Marianne, whom Jessie shares a room with at a boarding house for a while, discovering the strange relationship this pair have, the mother sabotaging her daughter’s attempt to create a stable life for herself. Marianne also works at the café.

We meet Belle, a pastor’s daughter, who is to be married to Wallace. He’s saving for a deposit on their house and he and Belle’s father decide Belle needs a job to contribute to household expenses.

Hal and Wallace went to see the woman who ran the café. The woman was all lip and very impudent in Hal’s opinion, although Wallace rather liked her. I make the rules, she told them, and Belle will obey what I say when she comes to work at the Violet Café; she could worry about their rules when she went home. They waited for her to show them around but she didn’t, just waiting for their answer with a take it or leave it look in her eye.

There’s Ruth and Hester, the daughter she had at forty-six years of age.

A girl of quality, her mother believed. She expected her to go far. Hester would win scholarships and go to university, she too would stay clear-skinned and virginal. Instead, Hester grew more quiet and shy as one year followed another. When she was fifteen her frothy brown hair became mysteriously streaked with grey, as if she was already old.

Part Four are the years they all work in the café, where the lives of these young women under the tutelage of Violet come together, where friendships are forged, romances flourish and temptations indulged. Their relations and futures culminate in one eventful night, which will change the trajectory for nearly all of them, their coming-of-age period reaches a climatic point, from which they each will embark on the adult lives that will claim them.

Nobody called out or said goodnight or goodbye. Inside the café the phone was ringing but nobody answered it.

By Part Six it is 1980 and Jessie is in Phnom Penh working as a foreign correspondent. She has left New Zealand and is based in London, but spends most of time working in conflict zones, travelling from place to place following the scent of a story. She has left her past behind her, but will cross paths with some of those people she knew from the days at the Violet Café, learning more about what happened on that last night. The shadow of Violet still hangs over her and she find herself drawn once more into her realm, under her instruction.

It is an evocative novel, which brings that era of a small lakeside NZ town alive, showing how the young women of the time were almost stifled under the expectations of their mothers, and found a place of respite in the café run by the unorthodox matriarch Violet. For some, it wasn’t enough of a distance to rid themselves of guilt, they would leave, going far from home, far from their cultures, creating new personas to remove all trace of the past, one that despite their attempts, never really left them.

Another of Fiona Kidman’s books has recently been published in the UK, a companion novel which delves deeper into the life of Jessie’s mother Irene, from the time of her becoming a war widow to her marriage to Jock and the lives of her children, spanning the years from 1952 to 2015. You can read a review of it by Susan, over at A Life In Books.

Note: Thank you kindly to Gallic Books for providing a review copy.

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The Captive Wife by Fiona Kidman

Fiona Kidman is a New Zealand novelist, poet and script writer, whose most recent novel The Infinite Air a novel of the life of the aviator Jean Batten, I reviewed earlier this year.

Although she has published over 20 books, she is relatively little known outside Australia and New Zealand, however recently her novels have begun to be published in the UK by Gallic Books, who translate a number of excellent French authors into English, and now with their new imprint Aardvark Bureau, are bringing novels originally written in English, but from countries outside the UK and US, their aim to bring an eclectic selection of the best writing from around the world.

aardvarkOne of my favourite reads from 2015 was the Aardvark published novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr and in early 2017, they will publish Fiona Kidman’s novel Songs From the Violet Café.

The Captive Wife isn’t a recent novel, just one I had on the shelf, it was originally published in 2005 and I was reminded of it after reading Jeremy Gavron’s memoir, A Woman on the Edge of Time, as his mother, who is the subject of his memoir, also wrote a book called The Captive Wife, though quite a different volume to Fiona Kidman’s.

The Captive Wife is set in the 1830’s, spanning ten years from 1832 -1843 and is based around the lives of two women, one the young Betty Guard and the other her school teacher Adeline Malcolm, whom Betty takes as her confidant, to share what exactly happened to her and her children, when they were taken captive on the shores of New Zealand, during one of their frequent visits.

In narrating her story, we come to know the circumstances of these women and their men and how they came to be living in Sydney, where much of the story is based.  The man Betty is betrothed to Captain John (Jacky) Guard, arrived on one of the convict transport ships, a petty criminal, but one whose fortunes have changed as he gets involved in seafaring and whaling.

Miss Malcolm had been a teacher and is now a governess to two children, her situation somewhat precarious since the death of her mistress and her employer’s disapproval of her connection with the so-called captive wife, Betty Guard, whom rumour has it, was not as captive as many would have them believe.

te-rauparahaJacky Guard takes Betty to New Zealand as his wife and they set up home in a bay that is handy for their whaling activities and where it is easy to trade with the native Maori population. Jacky trades with, though doesn’t trust the Maori Rangatira (chief), Te Rauparaha. He is able to negotiate with him, but fears he may have disrespected some of their taboo beliefs. There are constant challenges to their attempt to settle on this land, each time they return to Sydney, their home and belongings are often burned on their return.

Sometimes the whalers invade the villages and fraternise or do worse with the local women and it is through one of these misunderstandings that their lives come under threat and the young Betty is taken captive with her two children.

The novel is based on real events and is compellingly told, as two cultures clash and one way of life is gradually imposed upon another, although the perspective is more oriented towards the colonists, as much of the narrative is told through entries in Jacky Guard’s journal and in the oral narrative of his wife to her ex school teacher.

It is only through Betty’s eyes that we see and experience something of the Maori way of life and their reaction to the arrival of these whalers and traders and the devastation they introduce with what they bring. Betty stays long enough with the tribe to begin to see the value in their ways and it is this sympathy that is subsequently seen as suspicious, as a betrayal not just to her so-called husband, but to the colonial masters.

Betty’s experiences are those of a young woman, though it is as if she has lived much more than her years. Her story is told to Miss Malcolm, who though much older is as much a captive herself, in her spinsterhood and in her inability to communicate her own hidden desire, which Betty’s story forces her to confront.

elizabeth-guardIn real life Betty Guard (born Elizabeth Parker in Parramatta, Sydney) made her first voyage with Captain Jacky Guard when she was either 12 or 15 years old, and he 23 years older than her. She is said to have been the first woman of European descent to settle in the South Island of New Zealand and her son John, the first Pakeha child born in the South Island.

She and her family were captured at one point, her husband released with orders to return with a ransom. Her ordeal was later described in a somewhat lurid report in the Sydney Herald of 17 November 1834. It was four months before a rescue mission was  dispatched to bring them back. She and her family eventually settled in Kakapo Bay, where she is buried and where some of their descendants continue to live today.

The Captive Wife is an intriguing story and although a part of me wishes someone would write a novel from the perspective of the indigenous people, at least this gives us an alternative insight, by giving a significant portion of the narrative to the women who lived through these times, rather than referring to them in the footnotes, as was normally the case, as ‘the woman’.

Fiona Kidman in an interview with Kelly Ana Morey of ANZL, the Academy of New Zealand Literature had this to say about communicating with her characters, during the writing process:

I tend to live inside my characters for a long time when I’m thinking about a book. They go with me wherever I go, and sit beside me in the car. This is true, I’m talking to them all the time. And what is happening is that for the most part I’m thinking about how I would have responded to their situations had I been in them.

This was particularly true of Betty Guard, about whom very little was known – and I take some credit for uncovering her true origins and giving her to her descendants – generally, in historical references she was a footnote and referred to as ‘the woman’. I loved giving her a full-blooded persona and thinking myself into the pa sites where she was taken, and discovering both captivity and a wild freedom of the self.

Buy a book by Fiona Kidman

Kakapo Bay

Kakapo Bay

 

A Drop in the Ocean by Jenni Ogden

Book covers can be so hit and miss, but every so often one comes along that is so attractive you find yourself eagerly hoping that it’s a book that you’re going to love. And this one did not disappoint.

I started seeing this book mentioned on Goodreads and Twitter and when Jenni commented on one of my blog posts I visited her website and spent an evening looking at the pictures, reading her newsletters, learning a little about this remarkable woman who grew up in the South Island, New Zealand, became a neuropsychologist and now lives between two small islands in New Zealand and Australia.

DROP IN THE OCEAN3Jenni Ogden’s debut novel A Drop in the Ocean centres around Anna Fergusson, a 49-year-old woman not anticipating change in her life, whose controlled, familiar world is upended when her long-term research grant is casually rejected, throwing her into early retirement and the four scientists in her team into the harsh reality of insecure tenure.

The research I had been doing for the past twenty-four years – first for my PhD, then as a research assistant, and finally as the leader of the team – focused on various aspects of Huntington’s disease, a terrible genetically transmitted disorder that targets half the children of every parent who has the illness.

Although she had spent all these years studying and researching the disease, she had avoided dealing with the families, peering down a microscope rather than into the eyes of sufferers, making using of the team to carry out the fieldwork.

When the opportunity to spend a year on a tropical island in Australia was presented to her by a friend, she was initially dismissive, until the idea of finishing her latest paper and perhaps writing a book prompted her to reply to the advertisement.

For rent to a single or couple who want to escape to a tropical paradise. Basic cabin on tiny coral island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. AUD$250 a week; must agree to stay one year and look after small private campsite (five tents maximum). Starting date October 2008. For more information email lazylad at yahoo.com.au

Coral Cay Australia

The island was an eight hectare coral cay surrounded by a large coral reef, with few inhabitants, accessible by fishing boat or charter, only solar power and supplies brought in fortnightly.

Named Turtle Island, one of the locals was a ‘turtle whisperer’ named Tom, a researcher who tagged turtles, participated in turtle rodeos and kept pretty much to himself when not at sea with the graceful creatures.

While Anna planned to spend her days working on her memoir, the allure of the activity of the island and Tom made her restless, she became curious about him and the fieldwork he was doing. While part of her resisted the attraction, her instinct was stronger, pushing her out of the cottage and into his realm.

The novel places Anna and Tom on the same island where we observe their relationship develop, how they challenge aspects of each other, their relationship a conduit to them seeing themselves more clearly.

The novel is written in a familiar, comfortable style, Ogden’s sense of place is so strong, you will feel as though you are on the island with them all, seeing everything around you, anticipating the developments between characters, taking part in the daily activities and monitoring of the turtle season, witnessing their vulnerability to the elements.

The main characters are fully realised and brilliantly captured, Anna always in control, somewhat detached from people in her life and living far from her own family, has to let go to become close to Tom and through him will learn more about her own research and person than all her years of dedication and hard work had achieved.

A Drop in the Ocean is the perfect summer read, the quiet, shocking dilemma of losing a grant and the job that went with it, the flippant fantasy of leaving everything familiar for a tropical island and the reality of making a life and finding love, it’s engaging, thought-provoking, heartfelt and sun-filled. Highly recommended!