Fiona Far­rell crafts many sto­ries from the life of a sin­gle Christchurch villa.

New Zealand Listener - - CON­TENTS - By ANNE ELSE

Tears of Rangi: Ex­per­i­ments Across Worlds, by Anne Sal­mond; nov­els by Fiona Far­rell, Philippa Gre­gory and Graeme Lay; and a con­tem­po­rary fic­tion round-up

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.

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