Reed, 1991, $24.95
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood‑dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
(W B Yeats, The Second Coming)
The narrator of this novel comments at one point as she surveys Auckland, the feral city, ‘It reminded me of TV clips I’d seen of places like Beirut or Baghdad, the same sense of dislocation … A reconstruction of reality which made no sense. It was a living illustration of the centre not holding, mere anarchy loosed upon the world like a series of surrealistic, heartless photographs.’ Even before this explicit allusion, I had been reminded of those haunting lines from W.B. Yeats.
From the novel’s earliest pages the reader shares the narrator’s gradual sense of dislocation, her awareness that this is a hopelessly fragmented society. The city fringes are occupied by a powerful, wealthy élite who are blind to the suffering of the wild denizens of the inner city, the lost and dispossessed. While we can respond intuitively to landmarks we know, we recoil simultaneously from the rapidly accumulating images of horror. The known becomes unknown; the familiar, frighteningly unfamiliar. Nor can New Zealand readers easily delude themselves that such a, hellish vision is impossible. Too many recent events in our society have defied rational comprehension: our city centres are in danger of decay; our streets too often the setting for desperate acts of violence; our new heroes are now ‘captains of industry’. The reality of the 1992 Los Angeles riots beamed nightly into our living rooms invalidates any such escapist delusion. Feral City cannot be dismissed as simply, as one character dismisses Orwell’s 1984:’nothing to do with life … a typical Englishman’s fantasy about closed cruel systems’.
The novel’s first few pages introduce the narrator, Faith. Self-aware and inward looking, she is, in her own words, a 38-year-old widow, ex-addict, lover of words, vagabond, and eccentric. Although she believes that she has moments of second sight, and that she intuitively understands her sister, Violet, she is clearly unable to see reality. Part of this lack of perception is her desire for ‘everything to be the same, embalmed warmly ill the sun’, and an unwillingness to see otherwise.
While in the South Island, Faith has heard rumours of Auckland, ‘a city broken beyond repair’, but she is unprepared for the actuality that confronts her. Faith and Violet’s parents have recently died and Faith has returned to take over the second‑hand bookshop, to make it a place that is alive, ‘A meeting place. Not just a place that sells commodities for profit. ‘Her sister believes that she is driven by her ‘relentless egotism’, and urgent desperation to destroy the past and repair her life. Part of her motivation, however, is her own love of reading; books have filled Faith’s world with colour and dreams, given her life a kind of spiritual dimension. Central too, is her instinctive need for community, a world of shared language and experience.
So not only is this a book which warns us of the inevitable consequences of rampant monetarism, of a society rotting at the core, it is also a novel about the power of the imagination, about books and their place in society – but not the ‘million-dollar stuff written by human adding machines’. Perhaps at times Faith becomes too obviously the author’s mouthpiece, as, for example, when she provides us with a catalogue of writers, such as Steinbeck, John A Lee, Lorca, Fanon, Neruda, those books of ‘despair and redemption’. But if at such times Rosie Scott has allowed herself to become too didactic, at least it is a didacticism born of passion and anger.
There is a degree of inevitability about the plot and structure, and some uneven writing, but there are also moments of real suspense, and some of sharply sweet nostalgia. Faith’s green bookshop does flourish, in spite of the brutalising environment that threatens to choke its growth. But for me this was not the image that lingered in my mind, nor was there any sense of redemption of human compassion and courage, nor a regaining of childhood innocence. Rosie Scott has constructed a desolate wasteland from the land and people I had thought familiar, and its nightmarish figures and images have remained to haunt my mind.
Gill Boddy is a Wellington writer and editor.