• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman – book review

Fiona Kidman. Photo/Supplied

Fiona Kidman brings a 1955 murder and the resulting death sentence to life.

A young man croons to himself. His neighbours complain, but he gets louder as the morning train rattles past. He’s daydreaming of home, half a world away. Belfast. He’d grown up thinking himself British, to everyone here he’s Irish. He’s met at the door with a tie to wear in court. They can’t let him have it in his cell; it wouldn’t do to pre-empt what may still come.

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?

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.