Fiona Farrell crafts many stories from the life of a single Christchurch villa.
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Fiona Farrell’s latest novel is the fictional counterpart to The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, her widely acclaimed non-fiction response to the Christchurch earthquakes. It begins in 1906 with a small shallow river running through the swampy site of the future city, and a nostalgic architect designing a 10-room villa, complete with inglenook, Gothic window arches and a romantic turret – exactly the kind of house I once longed for.
Thirty short chapters follow, giving vivid glimpses of the people whom the villa, the city and the plains shelter and are shaped by over the next hundred years. The fragmentary nature of these intensely human stories is signalled by each segment beginning and ending in the middle of a sentence.
Although their brevity can at times make it a little hard to engage with so many new sets of characters, the strength and impact of Farrell’s writing ensure that mostly they work very effectively to convey a strong sense of changing times and fortunes. The intricate subtleties of private lives intertwine with the twists and turns of history, from the Great Depression to the Springbok Tour and the fall of the
Twin Towers, as the house and its residents slide down and then up the social scale.
In September 2010, the first big earthquake hits, and the focus shifts to one family over the next two years. The spreading damage to their home and their city, caused both by natural forces and by seriously flawed official reactions, and the endless frustrations of trying to deal with it all emerge in another series of striking, superbly executed close-ups.
Lurking beneath the main narrative, surfacing at intervals, is a story with a completely different timescale, counterpointing that of the city and its humans.
A native longfin eel settles into the river and occupies its “place beneath the bank” for close to a hundred years, sets out at last on its immense journey to release its eggs
and die and is replaced by its offspring.
Farrell must be acutely aware that these extraordinary creatures are now on what has been called a slow path to extinction. But urgent pleas for action to save them have been ignored, in much the same shortsighted, commercially focused way that Christchurch people’s visions for their rebuilt city have been.
As the quakes take hold, Farrell’s writing is at its finest. Flowing and apparently effortless, never self-consciously clever or intrusively overwrought, the expertly rendered detail is supported by strong foundations. She’s particularly good at the difficult job of writing about children and teenagers, caught between the shifting earth and their destabilised parents, trying to make the best of their broken surroundings.
The repeated blows endured by the house, the family and their community both generate and reveal deep fractures in lives and relationships. The oblique ending is devastatingly sad but also uncertain and undefined enough to leave room for hope of regeneration.
DECLINE & FALL ON SAVAGE STREET, by Fiona Farrell (Vintage, $38)
Fiona Farrell: her writing is at its finest as the quakes take hold.