Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2016

All Day at the Movies (2016), by Fiona Kidman

all-day-at-the-moviesI love it when this happens: I started reading All Day at the Movies last night at about nine o’clock, fell asleep very late at night with the book over my nose, and didn’t get out of bed this morning till I finished the book at about eleven.  It wasn’t that the novel is a page-turner; it was more that it was so utterly absorbing that I just didn’t want to put it aside.

Fiona Kidman DNZM OBE (b. 1940) is a prolific New Zealand novelist, poet, scriptwriter and short story author.  She’s written more novels than are listed at her Wikipedia page, because (on the day I looked) the list doesn’t include The Infinite Air (2013, see my review) or this latest novel, All Day at the Movies (2016).  With the possible exception of The Captive Wife (2005, which I loved but have not reviewed on this blog) I think it may be her best yet.

Beginning in the brutally conservative 1950s, the novel is constructed as a chain of interconnected stories, tracing the fortunes and secrets of a New Zealand family. Far from being the ‘golden age’ so often associated with the postwar period, this era was a difficult one for women.  For Irene Sandle, widowed in the last year of the war, her only solace is the child born from Andrew’s last leave, but she lost a satisfying job at the library because in the 1950s there was no such thing as maternity leave.

When she went back to ask for her position after the birth, it had been filled.  The land girls who had worked in the countryside came flocking after jobs in town.  She did have a war widow’s pension after all, and a roof over her head, the head librarian explained.  It wouldn’t be fair to take her back.  That wasn’t exactly the point, because the roof was over her parents’ house.  For a time that was all right, but it wasn’t any more. (p.18)

Chafing for freedom that she can’t have under her parents’ roof, Irene takes little Jessie with her to Motueka, where she finds work as a manual labourer on a tobacco farm.  There she eventually falls for Bert Butcher, possibly a German-Jewish refugee on the run after he jumped ship. But he dies, which suits the overseer Jock Pawson just fine because he’s been leering after Irene ever since she arrived.

By 1963, eleven-year-old Belinda is mourning her mother, and not coping well with the ironically named Charm (Charmaine) who has inveigled her way into becoming stepmother to Irene’s four children.  Any hopes Belinda had that her older sister Jessie might rescue them collapse when Jessie takes off, and she, Grant and little Janice bear the brunt of Charm’s inability to be a substitute mother.

Belinda tried showing her father the rope burns on Grant’s wrists where Charm had tied him to a chair because of the wet sheets, and bruises on Janice’s arms where she’d been smacked for not doing her homework.  ‘You kids knock around with the wrong sort,’ he said.  ‘You want to get decent friends, bring them over.’

There wasn’t much to show for hair pulling, or getting your nose twisted, but there was all of that too.  Janice got head lice and Charm shaved her head and put kerosene on it.  When Janice screamed and tried to get away, Charm lit a match and threatened to hold it on Janice’s chemical-smelling head. None of them got school lunches if they answered her back.  You couldn’t always tell when you were answering back anyway.  Just the way you said please and thank you was enough to set her off some days.  Please. Pleased with yourself, are you?  Whack. Thank you. Thank you for what?  Calling you a liar? I’ll get the belt to you.  (p.63)

Each new time period introduces new characters: the man who rescues Belinda from an uncertain fate; the school counsellor who learns that Janice’s truancy had more to do with her stepmother than anything else; and a group of ladies who lunch, and experiment with their first marijuana on a fateful day.  The story moves through the twentieth century of New Zealand, noting the changes that affect women, that open up society, and the change in the media landscape.  Most significantly we see how opportunities change from the trap that the undereducated Irene finds herself in, to the second chance that Belinda gets (though not without the significant help of another woman).  This is authentic: this is how it was when women who had been denied education were finally able to access it in the 1970s.  Also authentic is the depiction of the unsafe working conditions on the tobacco farm, of the exploitation of a disabled hairdresser, and of unemployment in the wake of changes in economic policy in the wake of Reagonomics.  We also see the xenophobic reaction to the postwar arrival of Italians, and the lack of respect for the Maori too.

Some of the story is sad, but it’s not a misery memoir in disguise.  Life’s just not like it is in the movies, that’s all.

I loved this book, and was sorry to come to the end of it.

Author: Fiona Kidman
Title: All Day at the Movies
Publisher: Penguin Random-House, 2016
ISBN: 9781775538905
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House, via Raewyn Davies at 24/7PR

Available from Fishpond: All Day at the Movies




  1. Yes, we need reminding that full employment only applied to men, and only white men at that probably. How does she deal with race? NZ has a different mix to us (and a treaty) and that seems to have led to divergent outcomes.


    • Terra Nullius has a lot to answer for. I’ve seen something recently that says we should have constitutional recognition before a treaty, and something else that says the opposite. I want both!
      It’s difficult to answer your question about race without giving away spoilers… suffice to say that there is a mixed-race relationship which looks to me as if it has been handled respectfully:)
      I suspect that the Golden Age was a myth that does not include marginalised people, but I don’t really know enough about it, which makes me realise that I have not read enough from that era.


  2. Funny, my extended library network doesn’t have a copy – has it only just been published Lisa?


    • August, I think. Maybe it takes a while to get through processing at the library?


      • Nope, Ballarat library usually list new books as soon as they are ordered – weird!


        • Can you put in a request? I mean, is it do-able? Or you could do an inter-library loan… I’ve just checked Z-portal and they list three libraries that have it: Yarra Plenty, Murrundindi, and Darebin.
          But really, it’s such a good book, they should get it for you.


  3. Thanks for this. I’ve had this author in my sights for a while


    • For me, there are three must-read NZ authors: Fiona Kidman, Patricia Grace and Lloyd Jones. There may be more, I just haven’t come across them yet.


      • Thanks for those names. Just read a story by Kidman this afternoon.


        • A short story? From a collection?


          • It’s probably in a collection but I bought it as a Kindle single: Preservation.


      • I’m sure they would get it in if I asked. I have an audio subscription so I’ll put it on my wishlist.


  4. […] All Day at the Movies, by Fiona Kidman, see my review […]


  5. Have just finished reading this, the 4th novel I’ve read by her. I first read Paddy’s Puzzle in my late teens and have always looked out for other books by her – I have an old ex library copy of Mandarin Summer which I’ve mysteriiously not yet read (after about 30+ years!). The others I’ve read are The Infinite Air and Songs from the Violet Cafe. Songs from the Violet Cafe is about several characters/families but includes a lot of Jessie’s story, other than the bits in this novel.


    • Hello Luci, nice to hear from you. I’ve never come across Paddy’s Puzzle but I do keep a lookout for her books because they are usually in the bookshops here in Australia and hence the older titles sometimes turn up in Opshops.


  6. […] book recommended by Raewyn was Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies (2016).  Kidman is, of course, a pre-eminent NZ author, but this book was something special.  It […]


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