This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman – book reviewby Craig Sisterson
Fiona Kidman brings a 1955 murder and the resulting death sentence to life.
In her latest novel, Dame Fiona Kidman takes us deep inside a case that caused plenty of controversy at the time, more than 60 years ago, and has left lingering questions to this day. Why did young Albert “Paddy” Black thrust a knife into the neck of Alan Jacques beside a jukebox in a Queen St cafe? Was it a callous murder by a young delinquent, the latest violent symbol of an epidemic reportedly infecting New Zealand, or something else?
Kidman richly and eloquently brings the world of mid-1950s New Zealand to life. A time of deeply conservative politics and James Dean rebelling without a cause. World War II isn’t far in the rearview; scars and memories are no longer raw, but still vivid. Thousands of “Ten Pound Poms’’ arrive by steamship looking for a better life. Young and old, immigrant and local, Māori and European – there are plenty of divides for “they’re not like us” thinking.
The characterisation is equally textured. Kidman doesn’t just take readers into the courtroom or the viewpoints of main players – killer and victim, lawyers and judge – but goes broader and deeper. We get a holistic view of a life summarised by history as a single violent act. Or two.
Kidman takes readers to Black’s Belfast childhood, his early months working as a teenager in the Hutt Valley, his yearnings for home and enjoying bodgie life. We get a peek into the jury room, ministerial in-fighting, the effect on everyone at a prison when the noose looms – all sorts of lives, perspectives and contradictions that orbit lines in a history book.
Everything flows throughout shifts in time, place and perspective. This is a tale about violent acts that is infused with humanity and compassion. And although it may be set more than half a century ago, there’s a lot here that seems relevant to our modern times.
THIS MORTAL BOY, by Fiona Kidman (RHNZ/Vintage, $38)
This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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