Remembering Christchurch: Voices from Decades Past
A Villa at the End of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City
Remembering Christchurch: Voices from Decades Past is a treasure. Alison Parr is to be thanked and congratulated for conceiving and producing this book. The earthquakes’ wreckage of buildings and landscapes is easy to observe. Less obvious is the emotional and psychological upset, although this is just as widespread and long lasting. Shock and loss caused what locals refer to as “earthquake brain”, a dulling of cognitive functioning. Droves of people (including staunch men) with no history of emotional troubles or mental illness have been referred to counsellors by their GPs. It’s still common to feel confused or lost while driving around town, due to the lack of familiar streetscapes and landmarks. A City Remembers is a balm and comfort.
Parr’s inclusion of – and selection from – stories of 19 diverse people creates a portrait suggestive of the city as a whole. Her choice to transcribe interviews with these people lets them speak in their own voices. The effect for the reader is of having a variety of personal chats, especially as each section begins with a photo and brief biography of the person speaking. A range of photos embellishes each report of living, working and socialising in houses, public buildings and neighbourhoods. This approach is enormously appealing.
Of course, A City Remembers is a valuable document of social history. The book’s worth is also as a validation and aide-mémoire for readers, as they continue the process of grieving and adjusting to the new Christchurch.
Fiona Farrell’s A Villa at the End of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City also deals with the history of Christchurch, but in much broader terms. She gives a compelling account of all kinds of forces and individuals leading to the formation of this particular city in this specific place. Her discussion of various conceptions of maps, identity and community is engrossing. Of equal interest is the mining of geology, philosophy, archaeology, politics and contemporary cultural theory, for the light they shed upon the earthquakes and their effects.
The research method behind this extraordinary book is unique. As well as traditional reading around the subject, Farrell conversed with friends, closely studied the local newspaper over several years, spent a great deal of time amongst the ruins and rebuild of Christchurch, and travelled to L’Aquila in Italy to consider the dynamics of another shaken city and its people.
Most simply, A Villa at the End of the Empire can be described as a “story full of facts”. The reader is drawn in by Farrell’s charm as narrator, her choices of a myriad of evocative details to communicate scenarios and situations, and the book’s format. The fairytale style typeface of the 100 section headings suggests fun. Each of the brief sections is accessible and alive, due to energetic and fluid prose. As reading proceeds, the effect is an easy accumulation of knowledge and understanding. Such absorption is fostered by Farrell wisely trusting the reader to make the connections. This phenomenal book by one of the country’s leading storytellers breaks new ground. It is erudite, engaging and close to the heart.
Joe Bennett’s blend of perception, wit and deflation of pomposity serves him beautifully in his newspaper columns and travel writing. No doubt Bennett’s first novel is eagerly anticipated by fans throughout New Zealand and in other parts of the world. Yet, Christchurch readers are likely to get the most from King Rich.
The evocation of the city’s social dynamics and post-earthquakes realities is precise and often luminous. There is a curious pleasure in recognising places, situations like the “forest of witches’ hats that had erupted almost overnight like some sudden orange fungus”, and the stark difference between east and west in terms of socio-economics and damage. Bennett nails details with images like tables “now wearing a dandruff of plaster”, and a “car park … rolled like frozen sea”. Similarly, descriptions of local fauna are immediate and lyrical. As well, the omniscient narrator’s comments capture and reflect Christchurch readers’ experience of disaster tourists, arrogant and high-handed authorities, and obstructive bureaucrats.
That said, such commentary interrupts the action and characters’ thoughts and, thus, the reader’s engagement with the story. While secondary characters are clearly propelled by their own reasons, the contemporary plot-strands lack causality and strongly motivated protagonists. The effective historical “love mystery” is not enough to sustain a full length piece. It seems, then, that this new novelist was not well served by his editor. Overall, King Rich is redolent of place and time, vivid and funny.
Christina Stachurski is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch.