In 1955 New Zealand was far from liberal. Xenophobia was rife. English, and in particular Irish immigrants were generally treated with mistrust or even outright dislike. It was also the time of bodgies and widgies and “milk bar cowboys”, so different to the usual run of middle New Zealanders of the era.
Albert Black, the focus of Fiona Kidman’s latest novel, This Mortal Boy, came to Wellington with the encouragement of his doting mother, seeking a better life. Initially he made a friend of another immigrant and together they found labouring jobs and were able to board with a widow in Lower Hutt. The mother of the house treated them as well as Albert’s mother had treated him, and he grew fit and strong. He tried to save enough money to go back to Ireland but he was restless and homesick. It wasn’t long before he started mixing with the young people around the city and had stopped saving his money. The bright lights of Auckland beckoned.
He became the caretaker of a large central city house in Auckland and eventually started taking in housemates but it quickly became a rough party house with a bad reputation. Albert found “drinking, dancing and dames” to be more fun than working and saving. He fell in love with one girl but others chased him and he faced the jealousy of a small-time crook. In a scuffle one night, Albert accidentally killed him.
In prison for murder, Albert saw moral decisions being made on his behalf but always hoped for a reprieve. His mother in Ireland raised a huge petition which even went as far as the Governor General but it was ultimately unsuccessful. His was the last hanging in New Zealand.
Readers will recognise famous names of local identities and politicians and may be surprised by some of the attitudes expressed. This is a well-crafted story which is gripping to the very end.
Reviewed by Nan Turner
This Mortal Boy
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ