This piece first appeared in The Three Lamps, 20th December 2019.
‘At the End of Darwin Road’ is a beautiful, must-read memoir from one of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s most treasured writers and taonga, Dame Fiona Kidman. This is the story of her early life, tracing a line from the scented orange groves and their property at the end of Darwin Road in Kerikeri, to similarly-scented Menton in France, where she writes the book in 2006, whilst on the Katherine Mansfield residency (and where she accidentally remarries her divine husband Ian, but that’s another story!).
The present influences the past, weaving together the Kidman’s changing silhouettes over the years. From the ‘funny little thing’ she was as a child (not helped by her affinity for water divination, and an imaginery husband called Eric. McKay), through to her teenage years at Northland College, and then her burgeoning writing career, and becoming a feminist of sorts. As the book, and her life, progresses, we witness Kidman embracing her difference, as she comes to understand who she is, and the power of her words.
Kidman reflects stoicly on being bullied by the headmaster’s ‘big boys’:
I wanted to be a famous writer, and I was getting my frist real taste of the critics. – page 58.
She buys Pride and Prejudice with her cow milking money and so begins a Victorian literary fascination, often with the outsiders like Becky Sharp and Lydia Bennet. She was an advanced reader and would often came across adult content she didn’t understand, or know what to do with. She asks herself often whether she is a decent girl, and in fact what is a decent girl? Her decency came into question in tandem with her understanding of the power of the written word, with her love note to Eric (not to be mistaken with her imagineray husband, Eric McKay): ‘I still like you. Do you like me?’ She got in all sorts of trouble for that one: ‘I thought you were a decent girl,’ said the headmaster.
Kidman is damn funny, and is able to laugh at herself: at her weirdness, her ill-chosen dresses and hats, her power with words. She is also brilliant at describing place, especially her life-long fascination with those early Kerikeri years:
For my father it was a place where things might have gone well but for a little more luck here and there. For my mother it was a nightmare of servility and poverty. And for me, it remained a place where the exotic was mingled with solitariness and a fractured family life. A place where I had felt damaged. Some nights, when I lay awake, I would see the sunlight, sticky summer paspalum grass, ripe pendulous fruits hanging in the hedgerows in the heat. And oranges, glimmering among their jade-green castles of leaves. I often slept restlessly or not much at all. A dark corner would turn over at the edge of the picture. I could never quite lift it. – page 241.
I also enjoyed how we’re let into the secret real life seeds that grew her best-loved fictional work. The writer’s dilemma, she writes, when drawing on life, is what to put in and what to leave out, and what to invent.
Mandarin Summer is essentially a work of fiction, and so are most of the characters, but I have long ago given up the pretence that Constance and Luke Freeman are not based on my parents, nor Emily on myself. – page 30.
It is a story of friendship and love, too, with some poignant accounts of her relationships, including the tragic loss of two of her dearest friends, which had me in tears. And, her husband Ian, and their great love, casts a dappled light over the pages. She knew the minute he walked into the library that they’d marry. In Menton she writes:
I watched Ian turning into Montée du Lutetia, the steep little street where we live. He half raised on laden arm in salute, as he walked towards me. 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.
Memory can be difficult sometimes. – Page 228.
It’s also an enjoyable romp through New Zealand’s literary history, with appearances by Witi Ihamaera, Patricia Grace, Ian Cross, Michael King, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt, Lauris Edmond, Bill Manhire, Robin Dudding, Allen Curnow, and many more. There’s a scene in a bedroom with Sam Hunt that gets Kidman into all sorts of trouble…it’s not quite what you think, but I’ll say no more!
This is such a gorgeous book. Reading it is like sitting down for coffee with a dear friend.
MORE FAV QUOTES:
On leaving her ‘enchanted life’ in Morrinsville for Kerikeri:
All my life I will be shaped by that separation, and the journey to the north, taken in a slow train, in the company of my mother. – page 31.
Fascination with Kerikeri, as one does with the place where one is formed.
The morning her first children, Joanna, was born:
But there I was, a mother and a writer. It was my twenty-third birthday. – page 118
When all the babies except one had been given out, a nurse wandered over with a puzzled look on her face. ‘I’ve got one Māori baby left over,’ she said.
The baby was mine. I couldn’t have been more proud of her. – Page 118.
When I sat down to write Mandarin Summer, it was time to draw on this stored material about the North that I had carried around in my head for more than twenty years. – page 218.
Besides, I couldn’t leaeve the North alone. – page 241.
I don’t regret most of them, but I think there are times when it’s worth taking stock and asking yourself if you are achieving anything useful. Writing and committees don’t always go together. – page 164.