Finding a solid footing here, Bernadette Hall

The Skinny Louie Book
Fiona Farrell,
Penguin, $24.95

Female morality is described by Marilyn French as being a web of relations, not a hierarchy of rules. It takes its strength from recognising connections and taking responsibility for them. It is interesting that, like Patricia Grace in Cousins and Christine Johnston in Blessed Art Thou Among Women, Fiona Farrell has written a ‘big’ novel: on one level tracking connections between three generations of women, and on another pushing through the fabric of things to connect with a spiritual vision which is earthed, fluid and energised by love (a territory similar to that explored by the poet Dinah Hawken in her Small Stories of Devotion).

There is nothing fey or feeble in this way of looking. The Skinny Louie Book opens and closes with wide-angled shots: at the beginning a small town (South Island, New Zealand, cenotaph and lion in the main street) set square in the midst of chaos; and at the end, as we pull up and out as if in a plane, a small country poised to slither like a fish beneath the sea. In this insubstantial habitat, the task for the individual is to find a solid footing.

The original Skinny Louie story, now the first of the five sections of this novel, was startling in its blend of mythical and biblical imagery: the visitation of the hawk, the fatherless birth, the assumption of the mother, Skinny Louie herself, into ‘heaven’ – induced, with typical Farrell humour and her unique magical commonsense, by the Electricity Department! It ended with a prophecy of the return in vengeance of the baby Tia, ‘casting truth about her like a bright shadow’.

In expanding her initial idea, Farrell has introduced a second protagonist, Tia’s ‘sister’ Maura Conlan, whose life is pretty much a synopsis of all womanly possibilities. Maura is vivid and recognisable but it is Tia (short for Celestia – heavenly one) who elicits the key moments of epiphany (though her foster mother, Peg, has a Celtic eye for miracles and the gift of healing). For all their impeccable detail and gusto, I found the larger episodes without her variable in energy.

The writing in this novel is taut, muscular, poetic, daring. In the true nature of epic, formulae such as snatches of song, lists, omens are used to unify a narrative divided into small segments, each of which has its own title. This is not merely to précis the action but to add direction, irony, humour – an opening up of the text more common in poetry. Uri Gagarin Passes Over the Cemetery but the conquest of nature is diminished by Maura’s first bleeding which makes her part of the fertility, the immortality, of the world. Beep beep. Beep, beep – science is reduced to a mechanical rattle. Oof Oof Aah – sex! or rather his pleasure in it! And Maura is pregnant. The Abolition of the Patriarchy tee tum tee tum. And we are laughing at ourselves.

Such a bathetic juxtaposition of the grandiose and the domestic, the illumined and the comfy, is not only highly entertaining (and this is a very funny book for all its awareness of the dark). It is also highly political in its restating of what matters. In a wide sweep of New Zealand history full of chaotic human experience, the desperate, the tragic, the cruel and the deluded are drawn without vindictiveness, and we are constantly reminded of the value of the simple, unshowy gesture of the individual: Mary Agnes flowing into her own body at her husband’s touch, Wi Paranihi disarming his crazed schoolteacher, Maura’s hand on her father’s broken one, Peg Conlan in old age welcoming Martin home. All, in Angela Carter’s terms, demonstrations of ‘the blinding access of the grace of the flesh’. The morality of the novel, like its language, is unconventional and unselfconscious, driven by compassion and integrity.

Nowhere is the shamanic quality of the novel more clear than in The Testament of Tia Conlan. As the narrative plunges fast forward, at times jerky and presumptive, we are confronted with post-nuclear desolation. The covenant of renewal established in the experience of Skinny Louie has been broken, and can be restored only by her daughter. Martin Conlan’s silence and withdrawal from community are being replayed, huge and demonic. A new myth, resonant with the wisdom of Europe and of the tangata whenua, is needed to make us real, to embody our crazy innate optimism. And so Tia, old and incontinent, clings like a chimp, a Fury, a conscience, to the back of one of the few remaining humans, a murderer called Spaniel, driving him back to community. And wherever she urinates on her journey through the mountains, there fresh streams of water flow and the land is reborn into fruitfulness. Yet even in this chapter, the prophetic tone is nicely earthed in humour and domesticity.

‘Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function’, wrote Italo Calvina in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I couldn’t agree more. So, a warm welcome, Skinny Louie. May you fare well.


Bernadette Hall was writer-in-residence at Canterbury University in 1991. She is currently working on a third book of poetry and completing a playscript.


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