The Trouble with Fire (Vintage, $36.99)
We usually think of historical fiction as something we find in novels that tell tales about life in the very distant past. In her short story collection The Trouble with Fire, Fiona Kidman offers us an alternative framework for considering history and fiction in a way that is complicated by structure, memory and point of view.
The early stories may not be obviously historical, but they explore how we engage with the past via memory, and how these pasts cast shadows and shed light on our present. Characters seem as bewildered in old age as they are in youth, sometimes uttering surprising declarations, or making seemingly out of character decisions.
I had almost forgotten that until relatively recently New Zealand women were forced to travel surreptitiously to Sydney for abortions, so it was remarkable to read in “Extremes” such a meticulous description of the journey two women make in the 1970s to have the procedure.
In this collection, the world can be an unfriendly place, so a further pleasure of the story is the small kindnesses of strangers, and even the devotion of the husband. However, this made me unsure of the last part of the story, which brings us abruptly into the present, and calls into question even those gentle connections.
The second section of interlinked stories begins in 1920, and revolves around related characters at various times in their lives, giving a 360-degree perspective on a mysterious death. In addition, characters have their own personal story arcs and preoccupations. This is engaging right to the end, and perhaps more novelistic in approach. While there is something sad about watching characters never discover a truth that the reader already knows, it suggests that there are no easy answers or tidy endings.
For me, the strength in the collection could be found in these latter stories, including the third section. It contains two historical stories about real people: Prime Minister Gordon Coates and Lady Barker. These more conventional historical fictions are fascinating, and highlight many questions about how much we can know about the real lives of well-known figures, as well as how a story is dependent on who does the telling.
Kidman is not afraid to get her hands dirty, to explore human frailty and malice, sex and death. There were moments when I stumbled over tenses or syntax, but there were also extraordinary sentences: “They did a terrible thing, these children who fell from the sky…” “This was to be the way of it: the fires, the heat, the darkness, the blackened man, her entrance into torment.”
It is good to see the short story championed as a form that can tell us about our collective past through the lens of fictional characters.
Metro, November 2011