Book review: The Trouble with Fire by Dame Fiona Kidman

This book is in stores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

It’s a shameful fact to admit but I don’t need both hands to count how many collections of short stories I’ve read. Okay if I’m being honest, I don’t even need all the fingers on one hand. So when the chance to review Dame Fiona Kidman’s latest compilation came up I was excited to stretch my literary wings – and with its nomination for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards I knew The Trouble with Fire was going to be a real treat.

There are 11 stories in this anthology and all are linked by the theme of fire. In some cases the fire is physical, as in the three interconnected tales in part two of the book where the peat swamps of 1930s Waikato burn as young and naïve Joy Mullens mysteriously disappears: a fact that does not seem to trouble her callous husband. In Extremes, Sam keeps fire watch over the forests of Tokoroa while unknown to him, his wife Doreen escapes to Australia to abort her affair pregnancy.

In the last story which gives this collection its name, two well-to-do ladies of our country’s pioneering days enjoy the thrill of burning tussock to clear the Canterbury land for pasture.

In other stories it is metaphoric. In The History of It fire shows itself as the initial scorching passion between clandestine lovers Geraldine and Duncan which burns out as the reality of the marriages they jeopardise sets in. In Preservation, it’s the deception and its unintended outcome played by two old school friends who pull together to help another whose mother dies while she’s in prison.

I was really worried that, even though these pieces are generally considered long by short story standards, I wouldn’t be engaged by them – that the stories would just start to get going and then come to an abrupt halt. Or that I wouldn’t have enough time to become involved emotionally with the characters and their plights – one of the luxuries of novels.

I was delighted to be wrong.

Dame Fiona writes with a subtle and deft hand. Every story was a perfectly formed little morsel, obviously finely crafted so as to draw you in with the detail you needed but not a word wasted. They seemed to effortless flick time periods and narrative point of view with assuredness. In fact I particularly enjoyed the very “New Zealandness” of the settings, how they ranged the length of the country and how authentically Kiwi the stories were.

Of course some stories grabbed me more than others: I loved the cleverness of the shopping ruse’s outcome in Preservation and the strong sense of time and place in the uncomfortable forced walk down nostalgia lane for the character of Hilary in The Italian Boy.

And despite my misgivings, I really did like the brevity of the pieces. It was great to be able to dip in, have a short but satisfying read and then come back to it later without having to worry about remembering who characters were and what they’d been up to.

So the big question is did The Trouble with Fire convert me into a short story reader? The answer is a resounding yes and I’m so fortunate this is an art form Kiwi authors – and in particular Dame Fiona Kidman – excel at. If you need me, I’ll be the girl with her nose in a short story collection.

Reviewed by Kelly Badman, The Well Read Kitty

The Trouble With Fire
by Dame Fiona Kidman
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869793593 (Paperback) and 9781869793609 (Ebook)

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