Mandarin Summer (1981) was Fiona Kidman’s second novel, following on from her ground-breaking first novel, A Breed of Women, (1979) which broke social taboos about mixed-race relationships in New Zealand. Mandarin Summer is an interesting book because it shows Kidman early in her impressive career as a writer, experimenting with her writing style and again being unafraid to tackle taboo topics.
However, perhaps second-novel-syndrome was at work with this novel because the narrative voice is not quite under control. It’s not enough to spoil the flow of the novel but it does occasionally jar. The story is narrated by Emily Freeman in two time-frames: as an adult looking back on extraordinary events in her childhood, and also as a child living the events. Sometimes these narrations slip and Emily-the-child sounds a lot more like a jaundiced adult than she should.
I spent an uncomfortable night in the narrow bed. My first appraisal of the sheets being damp was correct. I thought that my mother would be seriously worried if she knew, but I didn’t have the opportunity to tell her. When I got back to the room where I had left my parents, by following my nose to the light, much as a person will head downstream to find a stream, and eventually arrived back on one of the outside balconies, she had gone. The door was standing ajar and there were signs that at least a couple of suitcases had been turned out in search of something. An apron and a change of clothes as I would learn. (p47)
The sentence construction sounds slightly quaint, almost Victorian in style. Rather odd for an eleven-year-old child, even one as much of a prig as Emily is. But it’s a Gothic novel, so we’re meant to be disconcerted, and it’s not long before the winding corridors, dark spaces and Rebecca-esque shrubberies of Carlyle House dispel the occasional clunkiness in the prose.
It’s 1946. Emily’s father, Luke Freeman, has been conned into buying land ‘up north’ on a promise of ‘light work’ on the Barnsley’s property while he builds a house for his family. He’s not long back from the war, and has had a bad one, so he’s diffident, uncommunicative and easily intimidated by people of superior social status. Emily’s mother, Constance, had ‘married down’ to avoid being ‘left on the shelf’ and when she arrives from Wellington with Emily in tow, she’s disconcerted to discover that she’s expected to be the cook. It’s not the reunion they were expecting.
There are many adjustments to be made. Constance has to abandon any romantic notions she might have had about Luke because she soon realises that she is the strong one in this relationship. Like many women during the six years of war, she has transcended the values and expectations that she grew up with and is used to coping alone and to making her own decisions. It comes easily to her that she has to take over the management of their miserable block of land because her man is too demoralised and ineffectual to do it. But at the same time she has to rebuild a fragile relationship with her hesitant husband, to manage Emily’s jealous displacement as number one in her mother’s life and to accept not only the drudgery of domestic service but also the lower social status it implies. The Barnsley children, Thomas and Rebecca, encapsulate the careless arrogance of their class when they sneer at the newcomers within earshot, and they try to bully Emily when they meet her later, alone and vulnerable.
Emily, trying to negotiate this strange new world and her estrangement from her father, encounters the enigmatic Jewish refugee Elva von Hart who plays exquisite music on her piano, a mysterious deaf-mute, and (with intimations of Jane Eyre) an intriguing voice calling to her from behind a wall. The reader soon learns that this is the (obviously peculiar) mother of Thomas and Rebecca, but for a while Emily-the-child doesn’t know that. Instead she is humiliated by her father’s anxious reprimand that she should not have cheeked the Barnsley children nor been ‘lurking around listening at people’s bedrooms’. Emily’s fraught relationship with her father is constantly made worse by her resentment over his fear of offending these people. The Barnsleys have cheated her parents with the sale of worthless land; they are exploiting Luke and Constance as domestic staff, and they take a perverse enjoyment in humiliating them - but her father not only submits to them like a craven dog but expects Emily to do so too…
Mandarin Summer has a rather improbable plot, as Gothic novels tend to have, and it depends far too much on an unseen Emily overhearing things that she is not meant to hear and does not understand. A proto-feminist who refuses to slot into her expected role, Emily is both brave and strong, though like any good Gothic heroine, she is given to night terrors and fits of crying. Her mother, despite her sudden descent into servitude, is also strong, more resilient, more adaptable and more capable than her ineffectual husband. In another taboo-breaker, Kidman shows Constance hating the unborn baby that was conceived on Luke’s return. Constance is in her forties and this unexpected baby threatens to limit her independence and her new role as the real provider in the family.
But the other women in this story are all weak. The stereotypical Irish wife of Dan Cape produces a baby every year and meekly traipses after him despite his betrayals) while the other women are all in thrall to Brigadier Barnsley. (He’s an unconvincing Machiavelli – but hey, this is a Gothic novel so he’s allowed to be). I think that these women’s weakness is meant to represent the jaded values of their class, their psuedo-European culture and their ‘colonial’ appropriation of the (ironically named) Freemans into servitude. That all the Barnsley wealth and comfort is doomed to fail is foreshadowed by a clever inversion of the Gothic novel’s atmospherics: here in New Zealand it’s not a wild storm but a searing drought which threatens everything. In contrast to the parched farms around it, Carlyle House is an oasis of green that depends on water pumped from a stream whose waters they will not share with their neighbours; and of course the eventual smoking ruin (cf Jane Eyre) serves these wannabe aristocrats right.
Mandarin Summer is not in the same class as Kidman’s brilliant The Captive Wife but it only confirms my intention to read more of this most interesting author.
Author: Fiona Kidman
Title: Mandarin Summer
Publisher: Portway, Chivers Press, Bath, Large Print Edition, 1991*
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library
*This is a dreadful edition. I got it because it was the only one available from the library but it is full of careless spelling and punctuation mistakes.
Try Abe Books or your library.