Monday, April 10, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“LIMESTONE” by Fiona Farrell (first published in 2009)

            I have been told that I put New Zealand books in this “Something Old” spot too rarely, and it’s true. Only very occasionally have I made something like James Courage’s The Young Have Secrets, Judith Binney’s Encircled Lands or Paula Morris’s Rangatira the subject of this section. But the reason should be obvious. The majority of weeks I devote the “Something New” slot to New Zealand works and get through a formidable amount of New Zealand literature in the process. “Something Old” allows me to go further afield. But I don’t want to snub older New Zealand books that are still worth reading. So here, unaltered from its appearance in the NZ Listener (on16 May 2009, to be precise) is the review of an eight-year-old novel that I really enjoyed, Fiona Farrell’s Limestone. For other books by Fiona Farrell that have been reviewed on this blog, look up The Villa at the Edge of the Empire and The Broken Book.
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The matter of narrative voice can be a bit of a bother to some of us readers. If a novel is written solely in the first person, we know nowadays that the narrator is unreliable and has to be regarded with a degree of scepticism. But if there are various narrative voices, then the author is seeking to create a different sort of effect.
Limestone is written in two separate narrative voices, and Fiona Farrell is up to something special, because each voice centres on the same character.
Clare Lacey is an art historian from the University of Canterbury, aged about 50, en route to an academic conference in Ireland. As she heads for Cork, and ruminates on the paper she means to give, she has another agenda. She wants to find out what became of her Irish father. He walked out on her family and their modest Oamaru home when she was a little girl.
When Clare thinks about the more distant past and re-creates her childhood, Limestone is in the first person. But “present” events are in the third person, as is the more recent past. Chapters alternate between these two voices, with separate typefaces in the chapter headings to point up their duality.
There is an implied split in Clare’s consciousness, a radical distinction between her past and her present. But there’s also a depth of perspective that couldn’t be created by one narrative voice alone.
The first-person narrator may sometimes be a little unreliable. At one point Clare rages against “coupledom”, yet to the very end she is clearly in need in need of somebody to share her life. So there's some self-deception in the mix. But the alternate third-person voice gives her solidity and endorses much that she says. She isn't all that unreliable after all, and reality is presented in its layered complexity.
Farrell's narrative strategies are wily ones. Limestone is not an arbitrary series of events. Nor is it an unreflective "quest", even as Clare gets nearer to her Irish goal. Early in the novel, a wickedly funny (and accurate) response to The Lord of the Rings shows what the author (or the narrator?) thinks of conventional "quest" stories. This tale has a tight controlling intelligence behind it, and what seems random reflection or digression falls into its place as the pattern is revealed.
Yet Farrell's powers of description are so strong and her details so precise that it's easy to linger over the novel's individual episodes. To savour them. The opinionated loudmouth whom Clare has to endure in the seat next to her on a long-haul flight. The bitcheries and pecking order at academic conferences, with show-off younger lecturers trying to make their mark. The real Irish pub night, which stands in contrast to the version of Ireland sold to tourists. And, most vividly, those childhood scenes in New Zealand in the late 1950s and early 60s, with the child observing clearly but not always understanding; experiencing and rejecting a child's version of Catholicism; and once inadvertently causing great unhappiness.
Then, of course, there is Dad building a limestone wall.
It could be that rather too many narrative revelations come in the last few chapters. It could be that the central image of limestone, building itself up from millions of microscopic creatures, doesn't quite work as the intended idea of human solidarity or philosophical recompense for botched human relationships. But these are quibbles.
This is a cunningly contrived, beautifully written and wonderfully readable novel. Not only does it say much about that peculiar New Zealand unease over ancestral roots, those nagging questions of identity, but page for page it has the type of prose that can only be written by somebody who knows exactly what effects she means to create and exactly how to create them. A novelist at the top of her form, in other words.

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