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Book review: The Infinite Air, by Fiona Kidman

Fiona Kidman has written a fictionalised life of Jean Batten.

After producing a short-story collection and two successive memoirs, Dame Fiona Kidman has returned to the novel with The Infinite Air, which imagines the life of Jean Batten, the glamorous aviatrix known as the Garbo of the skies, one of New Zealand’s most accomplished and elusive heroines.

Jean Batten arrives at the Mangere aerodrome in 1936 after flying solo across the Tasman on a flight that originated in England. Photo/NZH

Batten, born in 1909, was moulded by her wilful and possessive mother, Nellie, who separated from her unfaithful husband, Fred, soon after he returned from World War I. Batten discovered her destiny in 1929 when Nellie arranged for her to fly with dashing Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith.

Soon afterward, mother and daughter sailed to England, where Batten trained at the London Aeroplane Club and went on to break numerous solo flying records, along with the hearts of the spurned suitors who financed the aircraft she crashed during her failed first attempts.

Ultimately, she fell in love with an Australian pilot killed in a commercial plane crash in 1937 just months after she flew solo from England to New Zealand in record time.

Batten had her last solo flight in 1939, then retreated with her mother into nomadic obscurity. After Nellie died, Batten lost all purpose, moving to Majorca, where she died of a septic dog bite and was buried in a mass grave.

Kidman seizes on Batten’s psychological contradictions to drive her fiction forwards, meticulously examining her parents’ fractious relationship as a way of explaining her desire to succeed at all costs.

She similarly attempts to reconcile the image of the enviable, fearless, stunning aviatrix with the reclusive young woman given to bouts of crippling depression and paranoid neuroses.

But although the simple grace of Kidman’s adept prose perfectly captures the breathtaking thrill of early flight, the most fully realised character in the novel is not Batten but Nellie, and her own obsessive ambition.

Meanwhile, the novel’s peripheral characters appear as impenetrable as Batten’s selfish heart. Mentors, friends, siblings, lovers and public figures emerge like gossamer out of the fog before vanishing into the ether.

Nonetheless, although the emotional centre of The Infinite Air is not completely satisfying, the novel soars to moments of lyrical beauty and proves a memorable and rewarding journey.

THE INFINITE AIR, by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $37.99).