The Trouble with Fire
Fiction, Vintage 2011
Synopsis: Eleven long stories make up this collection, linked by the theme of fire. Fire is a dangerous lurking event, which is also beautiful and alluring in its physical manifestation. Like memory, one is never sure when it will catch up with you. In several of these stories, the past captures the mostly female central characters and reveals different aspects of their lives and perspectives on how others see them. The book falls into three sections. In the opening story, “The Italian Boy”, a woman novelist called Hilary is confronted at her house by a friend from her school days. Hilary has her own view of what really happened many years ago, but the friend sees it another way, and still wants answers. Truth is elusive.
The stories that follow in this section are ‘The history of it’, about an adulterous affair that ends in disaster with wide-ranging consequences, ‘Preservation’, which finds two seemingly respectable friends visiting an old classmate in prison; ‘Extremes’, concerning two women who set off to Australia to have abortions during the 1970s when abortion was illegal in New Zealand, ‘Heaven Freezes’, where an aging man discovers that the grief for his dead wife cannot be easily assuaged by a second, and the final story, ‘Silks’ is that of a writer whose husband falls ill in Hanoi. This second writer narrates her story in the first person and explores the nature of a long and loving relationship.
The second section contains three linked stories. ‘The Man from Tooley Street’, ‘Some Other Man’ and ‘Under Water’, each relating a different version of the same story of a woman’s disappearance in the 1930s, from the view of later generations of the same family.
The final section features two historical stories, ‘Fragrance Rising’ and ‘The Trouble with Fire’. They are based on true stories about an earlier Prime Minister, Gordon Coates, and Lady Barker who wrote Station Life in New Zealand.
What the critics said:
NZ Herald review by Nicky Pellegrino
Listener review by Louise O’Brien
National Radio review by Gina Rogers
NZ Otago Daily Times review by Patricia Thwaites
Extract from Summer 2011/2012 New Zealand Books Quarterly Review
Late songs (extract)
A woman approaching her 50th wedding anniversary flies from Auckland to meet her aid-volunteer husband in Bangkok, and they fly on to Hanoi, where he becomes seriously ill with rotavirus. Their holiday, planned partly to “stalk the ghost” of Marguerite Duras, turns into a nightmare of intensive care, censorious doctors, incomprehensible language, and money and insurance problems. The woman, a writer, who is telling the story, settles into an unreal life as resident of the Sunway Hotel, drinking too much Luis Buňuel rosé. Her memories of their marriage, from its obsessively erotic beginning through its later years of fiery love and fiery anger, mingle in her mind with images from the life and novels of Duras, especially “The Lover”, and making love in a Vietnamese room with slatted blinds, their skins “like twin silks sliding together”.
“The Silks” is the best and most memorable story of Fiona Kidman’s impressive new collection, mainly because it is the most intensely focused and the most consistently charged in its writing. It’s the only story not set in New Zealand, but it will stand close to Joy Cowley’s “The Silk” as an exquisitely crafted testimony to the complexities of love in later life, when memory and desire confront the nearness of death. It may be autobiographical, I don’t know – the writer-narrator, like Kidman, has recently published her autobiography – but it is utterly convincing. It’s downright terrifying if you read it while you’re travelling, as I did.
Dominion & Christchurch Press review by Bruce Harding:
A reader’s open letter to Fiona on her blog, 5inabus.
Reviews for the french translation, Gare au feu are here.