DE­CLINE AND FALL ON SAV­AGE STREET

North & South - - Photo Essay -

FIONA FAR­RELL ( VIN­TAGE, $ 38)

This is a fic­tional com­pan­ion vol­ume to Far­rell’s mag­is­te­rial The Villa at the Edge of Em­pire. Both books use 100 chap­ters to de­scribe and ex­plain the lead-up to, the ex­pe­ri­ence and the af­ter­math of the Can­ter­bury earth­quakes.

The chap­ters be­gin and end with el­lipses, start­ing and fin­ish­ing mid-sen­tence, as though we are fad­ing in and out on the events we ob­serve. They have been go­ing on be­fore and they will carry on after we en­counter them.

The down­side of em­pire, as it was chron­i­cled by Gib­bon, is re­called in the novel’s ti­tle, and it’s worth not­ing that Far­rell is writ­ing about a de­cline and fall – not a rise and fall. The ul­ti­mate catas­tro­phe is im­plicit from the start.

We fol­low the story of the villa at the heart of this book, and the peo­ple who live in it, over many decades. Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens is con­nected in some way to what came be­fore – even the house it­self, we are re­minded, was once liv­ing trees.

But there is an­other thread to this. In a se­ries of short chap­ters called “The River” that al­ter­nate with the main nar­ra­tive, an en­tity some might call a tani­wha, but the more lit­eral-minded might pre­fer to de­scribe as nat­u­ral forces, grows slowly and in­ex­orably un­til it bursts out with seis­mic power.

Far­rell is no stranger to long time spans in her fic­tion, stretch­ing back to The Skinny Louie Book. Ma­jor events in New Zealand’s his­tory serve to drive the ac­tion, with the life of the house and its in­hab­i­tants set against the likes of world wars, the de­pres­sion and a Bea­tles con­cert.

The big waves of his­tory spread their rip­ples into the lives of in­di­vid­u­als. You don’t have to be an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant to be af­fected by them. The earth­quakes are a par­tic­u­larly cat­a­clysmic ex­am­ple of this process.

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