This Mortal Boy is Albert Black, a young lad from Belfast who came to New Zealand on a ten pound ticket back in 1953 hoping for a better life. He never quite managed to grasp hold of that life. What he did was to fall in with the wrong crowd. What he wanted was to go back home to Ireland; that, or maybe he would have married his girl. What he got was the gallows.
Albert Black arrived here at a time when outsiders weren’t tolerated well, when they were expected to fit in or ship out, when the country was reacting to the unruly behaviour of a new social group—juvenile delinquents. They were, or so the talk was, smoking and drinking and indulging in free sex. And it had to be stopped.
While the fires burned each year in Belfast, books were being set alight up and down New Zealand. Police moved from one bookshop to another, raiding lending libraries and swooping on little corner dairies that carried a small stock of paperbacks, snatching books and comics along the way. Moral panic had seized the country as word spread of an epidemic of loose behaviour by teenagers. (p66)
Fiona Kidman has peppered her fictionalised account of Albert Black’s story with historical fact. The bodgies and the widgies, were regarded as delinquents. The Realm in Hataitai (it’s still there by the way—these days it hosts quiz nights) and other gathering places for young people were considered dens of iniquity. Fiona Kidman brings it all alive on the page, reminding us of how things once were.
Fiona Kidman shows how life happens to most of us, how weak the thread between things turning out okay and going so frightfully wrong. She takes us on a dance between the idea we are masters of our fate and victims of circumstance. You see, Albert has a bit of a temper on him. Usually a gentle soul when pushed to breaking point he can and does lash out. And Johnny McBride pushes and goads and bullies and intimidates until Albert snaps. His intention was only to frighten Johnny off. But as so often happens, Albert’s attempt at a solution made things much worse. Johnny is dead and Albert is charged with his murder.
Through out the book there are twists and turns, points when Albert could have taken a different path: if only he had told Johnny to push-off more forthrightly, if only he had gone with his girl that night, if only he had drunk a bit less it could all have ended so differently. And the if onlys don’t end there. Ultimately Albert is sent to the gallows not so much because he was guilty of murder (manslaughter, in this account, was the more reasonable charge) but because of the political climate of the day, and because people he thought were his friends were too worried for themselves to tell the full truth; in the way of people, so often, they were out for themselves.
It’s a tragic tale. There was a thin comfort in knowing that because of Albert Black the law was changed. He was one of the last to be put to death in New Zealand. The ensuing outcry over his death resulted, ultimately, in the abolition of the death penalty in New Zealand.
Opening sentence: October 1955. If Albert Black sings to himself he can almost see himself back home in Belfast, the place where he came from.(p7).
This Mortal Boy is Fiona Kidman at the very top of her game. Highly recommended.
Winner of NZBooklovers best New Zealand fiction award 2019
Shortlisted for the Ockham Book Awards 2019
This Mortal Boy (2018) Fiona Kidman Vintage
You can read an interview with Fiona Kidman here
Sometimes there is a prescience to novels, as if certain books have their particular time. I wonder about that, and the way books come into my life: the circumstances that surround my reading of them.
In this case, unforgettably, heartbreakingly, only an hour or two after I finished reading this novel fifty people were massacred. Many of them, just like Albert Black, came to New Zealand seeking a better life. They were murdered in a terror attack while they were at prayer in Christchurch mosques.
It’s four days later. Anyone in my country with a heart has it in pieces. We are, I am, grief stricken. Emotions are raw. There is a lot of fear, a lot of anger across the whole country. Out of this terrible trauma, just possibly, the seeds of change are emerging. At Mass on Sunday not only did we pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters, we prayed a Dua. New comers were welcomed and cared for even more warmly than usual. Gun law reform is a certainty. Many here are owning up to racism for the first time, and grappling with it in a way we never have before. Many, many thousands are reaching out to our Muslim neighbours, offering support. Large corporations have pulled social media advertising.
The ” tide of disgust” Fiona Kidman (p291) described after Albert’s hanging, is back.
Addendum 20/03/19: If you are wondering what you can do following the mosque attacks in Christchurch, here are four suggestions from Saziah Bashir
May all those who died last Friday rest in peace and may their loved ones find solace.
Categories: On Books