Jean Batten was a flyer - one of the many early aviators in the last decade before World War II who were gutsy, ambitious and desperate to make a name for themselves by setting new records for long-distant flights. They set out to prove to everyone one else still stuck to the ground that one day it might be possible for ordinary people to go everywhere by air.
Batten is a deeply mysterious figure and Kidman does a lovely job of digging beneath the newspaper headlines to explain the enigma of this woman who for four short years made blazing headlines around the world.
She flew in the era of other fabled flyers - Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Charles Kingsford Smith - and in her lifetime many of them died flying. Her own fiance died flying. Not Jean. She crashed several times and each accident could have killed her, but somehow she survived. And then, after her last flight in 1939, she largely disappeared from view. Eventually she died alone in Majorca in 1983 at age 74, her body put in a paupers' grave by authorities who had no idea of her former fame and glamour.
Jean Batten wrote three books of her own. There've also been biographies and TV documentaries, but until now no-one's attempted to understand her oddness by using the fiction genre.
Batten, for all her beauty and courage, was definitely odd. Her ambition was huge for a woman of the conservative 1930s - she once wrote she knew she was 'destined to be a wanderer' - and she was heavily influenced by an ambitious and driven mother. She struggled with relationships. People who knew Jean found her hard to get close to, and used words like 'sad' and 'lonely' and 'difficult' to describe her.
And yet, what vision she had. How impossible our modern lives would be without the daring of people like her. Just imagine! At 24, with only a few hours in her logbook, she was avid to fly from England to Australia in a Gypsy Moth biplane made of canvas, wire and wood, using just four instruments - an engine rev counter, air speed indicator, altimeter and a spirit bubble device which told her if she was flying straight and level.
Her route took her through places where many locals would barely have seen a white woman, let alone a plane. Even today the names are exotic. Whether it was in Rutbah Wells, Baghdad, Basra, Jask, Allahabad, Akyab or Alor Star... Batten would turn up with smile, a bag of various currencies and a white silk dress in case she had to look smart for some local ruler or official.
Her first successful flight to Australia (after two earlier disastrous attempts) took 14 days, 22 hours and 30 minutes.
Today, just 80 years later, we walk aboard giant jets to do the same distance in a day. We complain about the leg room, we complain about the food, we moan about the movie choice and the lack of decent wine. We barely glance outside at the world spinning past below us as we cruise high above storms.
We forget about Jean and her fellow pioneers, cramped into cockpits with the stick jammed between their knees, faces whipped by windborne sand and pelting rain, gazing anxiously into the black of night, hoping for the sight of land after hours of endless sea, nursing a sick engine, terrified of the bottoming fuel gauge.
Such a huge thank you we owe them for knowing the risks and yet still doggedly heading off into the blue.
And well done to Fiona Kidman for a rattling good read.