by Fiona Kidman
I read Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy last year and it was one of my favourite reads of 2020. I thought Kidman did a marvellous job of recreating a life of a nearly forgotten figure from New Zealand history, Albert Black.
With famed Kiwi aviator the enigmatic Jean Batten, not so much although I do value Kidman’s more sympathetic than usual interpretation of Miss Batten’s life.
Jean came from a seriously dysfunctional background. Her mother Nelly was obsessed with Jean and neglected her sons, her father was a notorious philanderer. Not too surprisingly, the marriage didn’t work out! Her brothers in Kidman’s interpretation were left to make their own way in the world – in a twist I didn’t know, the younger brother John became a Hollywood actor who did very well for a time.
Jean meanwhile grew into an astonishingly beautiful young girl.
Highly intelligent, she was also a gifted dancer and pianist. Her father was happy to encourage Jean in her dreams to become a concert pianist. But Jean, even though she was living in near poverty with her mother was determined to fly.
Where Kidman’s account differs from many others, both in newspaper accounts and biographies, is that she doesn’t see Jean as a heartless gold digger who ruthlessly obtained money from men to follow her flying dream. Some of them were infatuated with her beauty but who want to control her- and certainly didn’t understand her. This is indeed the strongest part of the book. I loved being gently lead to a different interpretation of Jean’s character.
Kidman even portrays Jean’s great love Beverley Shepherd as someone who would want to control her.
But the most controlling person in Jeans life was her mother, Nelly. Does Jean ever realise this?
For me, the book quality tails off quite a bit in Jean’s post fame years. It is almost like Jean & Nelly are cardboard cut-outs pasted into different scenes. Jean may have been happy to keep her mystique, but I was a little disappointed.