Review: So far, for now: On journeys, widowhood and stories that are never over

Reviewed by Caroline Barron

So far, for now: On journeys, widowhood and stories that are never over is a beautiful, must-read memoir from one of Aotearoa’s most treasured writers and activists, Dame Fiona Kidman.

So far, for now: On journeys, widowhood and stories that are never over is a beautiful, must-read memoir from one of Aotearoa’s most treasured writers and activists, Dame Fiona Kidman. It is Kidman’s third volume of memoir, following At the End of Darwin Road (Vintage, 2008) and Beside the Dark Pool (Vintage, 2009)—topping off (for now) a bibliography of more than 30 books including novels, poetry, non-fiction and a play.

So far, for now is Kidman’s rendering of the long view of her life; a vast tapestry nearing completion. Don’t for a minute think this is her last book—it won't be—but this volume lays down how the stitches and rows of a life line up in a way that feels somehow inevitable. She seeks out the patterns and touchstones of life and is unafraid to return to them. For these stories, as the title says, are never over.

For readers who have travelled with Kidman throughout her writing journey, this provides a sense of familiarity. Once again, we are with her as a young woman working at Rotorua Library, with her husband Ian in Menton, experiencing the death of her dear friend Lauris Edmond, and waving goodbye to her grandfather at Frankton Junction. There is no sense of sameness, rather a sense of viewing old things with new eyes.

Throughout 18 essays grouped into five sections (Mine alone, The outsiders, The body’s sweet ache, Going south and This new condition), Kidman records what many of us intuit about our lives: that there are patterns; that we rest our eyes on what is important or what we want the world to see. She does not go easy on herself or others—far from it. She uses her immense EQ and the ability to peer at situations and people with empathy and a critical eye to form her own conclusions.

This is most obvious in her essay about Denis Glover who once, would you believe, dismissed her as part of the “menstrual school of poets.”  Here, she writes of both his foibles and great talent. She intuits how his past impacted his present and forgives him for his ridiculous barbs. Again, in the chapter about Jean Batten (whom she wrote of in the novel The Infinite Air), she questions the motives of Batten’s biographer and presents a viable conclusion about the aviatrix’s ‘lost years’ in Europe.

Glover’s sexist dismissal is one of dozens Kidman has endured during the years. Indeed, on publishing her first book, the 1979’s controversial A Breed of Women, the response was so fierce that she considered giving up: “I would stop writing or I could write another book,” she said in a recent Arts Festival event. “So that’s what I did.” Thank heavens for that.

Again, recently, during her deep involvement with the Pike River mining disaster (comprising the Going south section), her woman-ness is chided: the chairman of Solid Energy told her she was “a woman with a total lack of comprehension of the complexities of the issues.” Kidman writes, “Ah women, I thought, that’s the problem.”

 Also in the Arts Festival panel, she notes how things have changed for women writers in New Zealand: “When I began, it was something a bit daring and exiting, and a little bit dangerous…there’s now a much greater openness about exposing ourselves.” I am one of many New Zealand woman writers who gratefully stand on her shoulders.

My lasting impression of Kidman is as a fearless activist who is unafraid to wield her words as a political act. Alone, and with Ian, she has tirelessly challenged perceived wisdoms and called out injustices. Along with campaigning for Pike River families and for Jean Batten, she has sought justice for Albert Black (whose story she wrote in the 2019 Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction-winning novel This Mortal Boy), has picketed against the Springbok Tour and worked in service to Cambodian landmine victims. All these, and more, are touched upon in these essays.

Like many writers, Kidman has a portfolio career that includes teaching. The essay On writing memoir delivers a fascinating insight into the lives she’s helped wrestle onto the page through teaching memoir.

One of my favourite essays is Flying Places, where she recounts the joy—and in earlier years, the terror—of attending writing festivals, small and large. She lives with a suitcase and a quick-pack list at the ready. She acknowledges the usually solitary life of a writer and the shot of adrenaline a writer gets from connecting with festival organisers, authors and readers. She writes, “We take away with us fragments of shared lives, the enthusiasm of our readers, a renewed sense of belief in what we are doing. We are less alone when we leave.”

Kidman is one of the most giving members of our literary community. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing her in the most natural of habitats: at Auckland Writers Festival chatting amiably to readers, roaring with laughter over lunch next to her good pal Witi Ihimaera, and recounting a very naughty story in a car ride on our way to a Queenstown Writers Festival event (sorry, but what goes on tour stays on tour).

Towards the end of the collection, Kidman considers the power of the words ‘old’ and ‘widow.’ With her sense of age and time impacted by Covid lockdowns, she ponders whether she merely acknowledges her age or has accepted it. She trades the word ‘widow’ for ‘single woman,’ implying that ‘widow’ stamps a woman with, she writes, “Not in service. Use-by date passed. Or, in a worst-case scenario, huntress on the prowl.”

She approaches both ageing and Ian’s death with her usual intellectual rigour, decoding her own feelings by writing about how other women coped and refashioned their lives after loss. She writes poignantly about feeling bereft at the absence of human touch and the almost divine role of massage in her life.

So far, for now showcases Kidman’s trademark exquisite writing, and is told with tenderness, humour and empathy. There is delight and resignation for how life has turned out and a sense of unapologetically inhabiting her whole self. If we’re lucky, this will come to us, too, in our later years. In Kidman’s own words: “Every life is extraordinary if you allow it to be. I am grateful for mine.”

 Reviewed by Caroline Barron

Disclaimer: Fiona Kidman wrote a cover testimonial for Caroline Barron’s book, Ripiro Beach.