Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2019

This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman

A review of this riveting novel at The Reader (Booksellers NZ) has just landed in my inbox, and it is taking all my self-control not to read it until I’ve finished mustering my own thoughts about it.  It’s the kind of book that really does act as a catalyst for discussion!

This Mortal Boy is shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards but that’s not the only reason I’m reading it: Fiona Kidman is one of five Kiwi authors in a session called Inside Peek at the Auckland Writers Festival in May, and I will be there in the audience, wanting to ask her: whatever was the trigger for her to write about capital punishment in this compelling way?

This is the blurb for This Mortal Boy 

An utterly compelling recreation of the events that led to one of the last executions in New Zealand.

Albert Black, known as the ‘jukebox killer’, was only twenty when he was convicted of murdering another young man in a fight at a milk bar in Auckland on 26 July 1955. His crime fuelled growing moral panic about teenagers, and he was to hang less than five months later, the second-to-last person to be executed in New Zealand.

But what really happened? Was this a love crime, was it a sign of juvenile delinquency? Or was this dark episode in our recent history more about our society’s reaction to outsiders?

Black’s final words, as the hangman covered his head, were, ‘I wish you all a merry Christmas, gentlemen, and a prosperous New Year.’ This is his story.

There are books which I don’t want to end because I’m enjoying them so much, and then there are books like this one, where the ending is known and I don’t want to read it.  It would make no difference to me whether Albert Black were guilty or not, I find the idea of hanging a young man of twenty absolutely repellent.  As you know if you read my review of Seven Hanged (1908) by Leonid Andreyev (translated by Anthony Briggs) I think all capital punishment in any circumstances is repellent.

Fiona Kidman (whose Acknowledgements show that the book is meticulously researched) brings the story alive.  The novel traces Albert’s impoverished early life in Belfast, his optimistic migration to New Zealand, and his absorption into the 1950s youth subculture of Auckland’s teenagers in the era of Bodgies and Widgies. Left in charge as caretaker of a house with an absentee landlord, he has unsupervised freedom when he is too young to handle the situations that arise.  His biggest problem is a young thug known as James McBride, an alias he has adopted from the character in the Mickey Spillane pulp fiction novel The Long Wait.  Albert, known as Paddy to his friends (though he’s Protestant, not Irish Catholic) offers McBride a bed for the night but McBride won’t move out when the time comes.

The question before the jury is whether Albert stabbed McBride in retaliation for being beaten up in a savage attack, and/or because of rivalry over a girl.  The jury, brought to life in a stunning recreation of group dynamics, consists of people prejudiced against outsiders in general and Irish immigrants in particular, and the conservatives who dominate the twelve all-male jury are also hostile to juvenile delinquents.  And even bush lawyers can see that the judge, by refusing to countenance provocation as a defence, was hardly fair.

Interleaved with Albert’s story and the trial in Auckland is the heart-rending rendition of his mother, Kathleen.

The door opens and her husband comes in.  He smells of acrid tar from mending roads, and of dampness from working in the weather.  He looks at her and shrugs.
‘Dinner not on?’ he says.
‘I’ll fry up some of last night’s taters,’ she says, ‘and a couple of eggs. Clodagh’s niece brought some in from the country.  There was more than enough for her to use up.’
‘There’s no good moping,’ he says, shifting his bag off his shoulder. ‘It’ll come to nothing.’
‘Our boy’s due in the dock,  Our Albert.  What’s not to mope about?’
‘It’ll have been a mistake.  You’ll see, they’ll sort it out over there in New Zealand.’
But it’s three months now since they received the telegram with the terrible news. (p. 13)

And the reader knows, even here on page 13, that they don’t ‘sort it out’.

This mother, who has to go without in order to pay for a notepad to gather signatures for a petition, is refused a visa to visit her boy, even when the community raises 90 pounds to get her there.  The cruelty of it beggars belief. If the fate of this young man who’d never been in trouble and didn’t like to get into fights doesn’t make you want to weep, his mother’s grief will.

Among those fair-weather friends who betray Albert is a girl called Rita, and when her mother turns up in court she learns things about her daughter that shock her.

Rita’s mother looks at her daughter as if she doesn’t recognise her.  She has sat up late, waiting for her.  It is close to morning.
‘Rita,’ she whispers, ‘what have you done?’
‘I didn’t mean for this to happen.’
‘Did you lie to that court?’
‘I don’t know, Mum.  It’s the way I remember it.’
‘You’re soiled goods.’
‘I know.  I’ll make it up to you, I’ll stay home.  Let you find me a nice boy.’
‘If your father and I can.  And what of the boy who is to die?’
Rita is wordless, her eyes suddenly full of tears.  ‘He was a nice enough boy, Mum.  Not a bad boy.’
‘May God forgive you, Rita,’ her mother says.  (p.224)

Indeed.

Also see the review at Alys on the Blog, which was the review that prompted me to buy the book back in July last year.

Update (the next day): Thanks to Karen from BookerTalk for this link to an interview with Fiona Kidman, in which she answers my question about the trigger for writing this book and provides other interesting insights, not the least of which is that this is her first book with a male central character… Thanks also to Kim from Reading Matters about the availability info in the UK, see comments below.

Contact details for anyone who wants to help in the campaign against the death penalty:

  • Amnesty International who began campaigning 40 years ago and have seen the number of countries who have abolished the death penalty rise from 16 to 104
  • Reprieve Australia whose president is Julian McMahon AO who represented Chan and Sukumaran and also Van Truong Nguyen (see my review of The Pastor and the Painter) who was executed in Singapore in 2005, as well as numerous other cases around the world.

Author: Fiona Kidman
Title: This Mortal Boy
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand), 2018, 295 pages
ISBN: 9780143771807
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond This Mortal Boy $27.96


Responses

  1. Excited to see your review of this one, Lisa, as it is going to be published in the UK by Gallic (which does a fine job of bringing ANZ lit to this side of the world even though it was set up to focus on French lit). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review so now I’m anxious to crack on with it (once my Stella shortlist reading is over).

    Like

    • That’s great, I’ve seen their ads for Australian titles sometimes on Twitter, but I didn’t realise that they did Kiki fiction too:)

      Like

  2. I really like Fiona Kidman but only a few of her books have been published her. A UK publisher has published The Infinite Air and All Day at the Movies and reprinted Songs from the Violet Cafe, and Paddy’s Puzzle was published here in the 1970s/1980s so I have that, and two other books I haven’t read yet – a former library copy if Mandarin Summer and a paperback of The Captain’s Wife from a charity shop. Hoping Aardvark Bureau publish this one here as it will make it more affordable.

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    • Gallic is publishing it in the UK on 1 August, though I think the Kindle edition is already available if you are that way inclined.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for telling me that Gallic/Aardvark (imprints of same publisher) are publishing This Mortal Boy. Kindle editon is out on 11 July here, 3 weeks before pb publication date. Wishlisted so I can watch out for it.

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    • The captive Wife was the first of her books that I read, and to my mind it is the absolute best. Such a many-layered book, we spent ages discussing it in our book group.
      I hadn’t heard of Paddy’s Puzzle, I’ll have to see if I can get that, but I have The Book of Secrets which came out in 1988 but I only found a copy a little while ago.

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  3. Agreed with you about the death penalty. A Pin to see the Peepshow made my mind up about that instantly.

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    • I haven’t read that one. For me, the catalyst it was the hanging of Robert Ryan here in Victoria in 1967 when I was a teenager. I thought it was the most barbaric act a so-called civilised country could inflict.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse is about the real life case of a woman, Edith Thompson, who was convicted of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband. It was reprinted in the 1970s or 1980s by Virago Modern Classics. More recently, another UK writer Jill Dawson published Fred and Edie, another novel about the same case.

        Caitlin Davies has written a book about the history of Holloway Prison, Bad Girls, which includes the story of Ruth Ellis, last woman hanged in Britain, and a couple of other women who were executed.

        I recommend all three books.

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        • Thanks for that…
          I think that the abolition of capital punishment, in Australia anyway, is a good example of politicians legislating for the common good in an aspirational way. They didn’t have popular support, but they thought they were right and they thought that the people could be guided towards a better way. And they were right. As in the rest of the West (with the notable exception of the US which stands condemned on this issue) there is no support for the restoration of capital punishment in this country and there would be an outcry if it were suggested.

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  4. Of course I meant The Captive Wife in my post. I should have looked it up!

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    • Oh we all do that:) The only people who can remember the names of books perfectly are people who don’t read very many of them!

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  5. Paddy’s Puzzle listed on Az as Random House New Zealand Kindle edition 2012.

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    • Thanks for that, I might have to overcome my distaste for the Kindle to buy a copy. But the trouble is, because a Kindle edition hides away inside the device, the book isn’t there on my shelves with its other Kiwi friends, all demanding to be read…

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  6. This sounds absolutely fascinating. I agree with you about the death penalty, it makes me shudder.

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    • And there’s mention of a previous execution which was botched.
      What I like is the way Kidman includes the perspective of the prison authorities who have to implement the order. The stress on them, and on their marriages, is intense.
      It reminds me of that very short story by Balzac, about the executioner who was haunted to the end of his days by having to execute the king.

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  7. Gallic has an interview with Kidman on their blog site. I loved her comment about the death penalty (like yourself I find this abhorrent) as “the politics of revenge that are not worthy of a civilised society.” https://belgraviabooks.com/this-mortal-boy-by-fiona-kidman-qa?i=gb

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  8. On my list it goes…

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  9. Sounds like a really interesting book. I was gong to ask why has she written a book set half a century ago – but maybe Karen’s link will answer that. I’d love to find time to read this book. Like you, I find the death penalty completely repellent too. I can feel my heart starting to pound just writing this sentence.

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    • I can understand that, I felt like that as the book moved inexorably forward and I knew what was going to happen. And whereas the Russian book I read (Seven Hanged) was fiction, (for all that it was of course based on real situations) knowing that Kidman’s story was about a real person who was so young, made it quite chilling to think about.
      And this is regularly happening in real life in America…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Lisa, a great review. I just finished reading this sad and intriguing novel. I am now listening to Slim Whitman singing Danny Boy. All so sad.

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    • Yes, it’s quite heartbreaking, isn’t it?
      I don’t think I’m going to forget Albert for a long time…

      Like

  11. […] This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman, (Vintage, Penguin Random House), on my TBR, I’d better get on and read it! See my review […]

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  12. I finished this a few days ago. Thank you for recommending it. Once I’ve collected my thoughts, I’ll write a review. Unforgettable.

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  13. Hi Jennifer, thanks! It’s always nice to know when one of my recommendations has hit the mark:)
    Please let me know when you write your review, and I’ll link to it from my mine too.

    Like

  14. […] This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman, (Vintage, Penguin Random House), on my TBR, I’d better get on and read it! See my review […]

    Like


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