In the hammock: reading Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy

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Fiona Kidman This Mortal Boy Vintage, 2018

 

Fiona Kidman’s marvelous new novel features Albert Black – the ‘jukebox killer’ – the second-to-last person to be hanged in New Zealand. He had left his impoverished but loving family in Northern Ireland in the 1950s to seek a better life. He was barely an adult.

Having read extensive research material, Fiona recreated the events and relationships that led to Albert’s controversial execution. I knew the ending but I kept hoping the Irish mother or the anti-hanging supporters would change the outcome. Not possible. So I read the novel – so beautifully detailed, so alive in rendition – in  a state of sadness at human behaviour. I am not talking about what seems to be murder in the heat of the moment after physical attacks.

I am talking about the way we treat people – who are claimed as different – as inferior: those from other countries, with different coloured skin, different accents, who make sexual choices other than heterosexual. Albert Black loses his name and becomes ‘Paddy’ because his Irish identity is not worthy of attention. It seems like the legal system, the judges, the media and general public were swayed by cultural scorn.

I might have had ongoing heartache as I read but I also absorbed the pulsating life Fiona created. The dialogue, the characters, the locations, the signs of the times – these all work to make a sumptuous depiction of a particular place in a particular time. I just loved it. I was born in June in Auckland one month before the jukebox event took place on 26 July 1955. Were my parents talking about it in their rented Point Chevalier bungalow?  What did they make of the case?

The execution bothered Mt Eden’s Prison Superintendent, the defence lawyer, friends Albert had made, to the extent public disgust at the death penalty saw the campaign against it work towards change. The new Labour Government of 1957 -1960  (in contrast to the fierce support of previous PM Sydney Holland) commuted death sentences to life imprisonment. In 1961 a National Government introduced legislation to abolish the law and allowed non-party voting. With ten National Party members, and those from Labour, the law was changed.

This is the kind of book that makes you reflect deeply upon how we do things today – how our prison system works to advantage or disadvantage, how difference still contributes to a lack of societal or cultural privilege.

Some books stick to you. This compelling novel is one of them. Beautifully crafted, meticulously researched, with ample attention to the grittiness of life and both the kindness and cruelty of people. I adored it.

 

Vintage author page

Video clip: Fiona talks about the novel

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