Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2011

Songs from the Violet Cafe (2003), by Fiona Kidman, Guest Review by Karenlee Thompson

The Captive WifeSongs from the Violet CafeHere’s another guest review from Karenlee Thompson, this time featuring Songs from the Violet Cafe, a novel from the New Zealand author, Fiona Kidman (whose book, The Captive Wife was one of the best books we’ve chosen in the ANZ LitLovers book group. (One day I should get round to writing a review of it here; it really was a terrific book to read and discuss.)  Songs from the Violet Cafe  came out two years before The Captive Wife in 2003 but I bought it only recently so you may still be able to pick up a copy somewhere if you are tempted by Karen’s review.  Enjoy!

In ‘Songs from the Violet Café’, Fiona Kidman challenges the reader’s powers of concentration and memory.  It is not a book to jump into and out of over a period of time.  It takes tenacity to gather together all the intricate fragments and grasp how the stories of the myriad characters interweave.  The pages of my copy are well-thumbed as I constantly jumped back a few pages to refresh the characters in my mind and try to place them in some sort of plot perspective.

Despite the tantalisingly mysterious introduction to Violet Trench in the early pages of Part II, I soon tired of her in her guise as the autocratic boss of the café. Without enough early background, I couldn’t warm to Violet at all and found I soon lost interest in her story.

The runaway Jessie seemed a more promising character with her quirky sense of humour.  She misses her ‘odd erratic mother’ but gets on with life all the same, and goes from feeling hunger more like a ‘rage, and a shapeless sense of desire’ to learning how to ‘become a person who was where she was in a given moment, someone who moved on from place to place, her home often just an address in a phone book in another country’.  So, I was pleased when Jessie took centre stage in the latter part of the book.

In writing about The Violet Café itself, Kidman shows an affinity with food (and it’s not surprising to see a dedicated food page on her website).  This take on vegetables is a fine example: –

 …little mounds of uncooked ingredients stacked side by side in china bowls: potatoes pared of their skins, mushrooms with their spiny hearts gutted and open, staring at the ceiling with their one vacant eye, a satin-red capsicum and moss-like mounds of parsley and thyme.

The compartmentalising of the novel and the ambitious structure is clever and intriguing. Part One is like a prologue and Part Two a prequel.  Parts Three and Four introduce and expand on the myriad characters and then Part Five is a denouement of sorts.

Part Six is like a new self-contained novel.  In it, Jessie Sandle becomes even more interesting in her guise as a foreign correspondent in Phnom Penh and her adventures make for an exciting read.  The subject matter, the style and the sense of tension and excitement in this part are quite different from the earlier ‘domestic’ chapters set in New Zealand and in the Violet café in particular.

From an early sub-chapter titled ‘Wallace and Belle, and Lorraine seen from a distance’:

 It surprised him how much Belle liked her job in the café.  One of the girls was getting married soon, just like her.  Hester said she could help Belle with the dresses for her wedding: she was terrific at sewing.  They were ever so busy at the café.  Everyone, except one girl called Marianne…

And from Part Six:

Of course the guerrilla fighters knew she was there, and would punish those who continued to harbour her.  Or demand a ransom for her, back in Phnom Penh.  And, if they didn’t get it, or simply tired of having her around, they would lie her face down, her arms tied behind her back and slice her head off with the end of a hoe, a favoured method for killing foreigners.

In addition to receiving a number of prizes and fellowships, Fiona Kidman is a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit and her bibliography is impressive.
© Karenlee Thompson

For other reviews of this book see Fiona Kidman’s website.

Many thanks, Karen for your contributions to this blog!

Author: Fiona Kidman
Title: Songs from the Violet Cafe
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2003
ISBN: 1-86941-405-5;  9781869414054
Source: Personal copy, purchased from a New Zealand online bookseller no longer trading.


  1. Fiona Kidman’s books are hard to find here in the UK but Aardvark Bureau reprinted this in 2017 and published All Day at the Movies last Year. All Day…. focuses on the stories of Jessie’s younger sibilings’ lives.


    • Hello, and thanks for dropping by. It’s the curse of the antipodes, really, not to have much of a presence in the UK. I was pleasantly surprised to find in the London Review Bookshop that they had a good few new titles plus the usual classics, but that seems to be a rarity.


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