DECLINE AND FALL ON SAVAGE STREET
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.