Back to the future, Shelagh Duckham Cox

The Hopeful Traveller
Fiona Farrell
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415175

This island novel starts either in 1851 with a rail journey to the Crystal Palace in London or in 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the two towers in New York. The story you get first depends on which end you choose to read from. Begin with the past and race towards the future, the reader’s told, or begin with the present and circle back towards the past.

Both halves end with a map of an island off the coast of a country which seems to be New Zealand; both begin with an aerial view of the island seen with black bottle-glass eyes as a bird comes into land. It’s tempting to try and pin down what kind of bird it is but what matters is that we see the island in its entirety from above and that the bird is both precisely describable and imaginatively mysterious enough for the author’s purposes. The ornithology intrigues and the fantasy tantalises; together they provide riches unearthed from a large store of factual information.

2

Fiona Farrell wears her learning lightly and, in the 1851 story particularly, tumbles her way through her own remarkably wide range of reference. Or, rather, she seems  to tumble. Her art lies in making the dense complexity of what she has to say seem but a moment’s thought. She’s as much at ease in Britain in the first decade of the railway revolution as she is in the France of Rousseau’s natural man. One of her colonists in the southern hemisphere island sets forth after seeing the international marvels of the Great Exhibition. Others are world-weary French aristocrats who adopt the loose clothes Rousseau advocated and – in the scene where they take on their gardener as their pet noble savage – speak in a lofty pastiche of idealists’ universal language. In a third strand, a victim of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, who will also eventually arrive on the island, watches her family die at the side of a road. This scene is as beautifully written as any in the book, and it is fired with a subtle authorial indignation; subsequent deaths on the island are more perfunctory at one level but filled with a saving zest on another. So the French gardener uses the corpses of his accident-prone betters to revitalise his failing kitchen garden, just as the famously effective Dust of Demeter that fertilised the best French estates was rumoured to have come from the battlefields of Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, and Waterloo.

Fecundity imbues the inventiveness of this half of the novel as fully as it imbues its many powerful descriptions of natural growth, and the atmosphere is that of an exotic habitat where any visitor who temporarily wearies of the sheer proliferation of the strange and new can go away and revive herself and then come back for more. There is much to relish here. A seamstress’ stitches are described with the same precision and sparkle as a Frenchman’s rudimentary English derived from studying Locke and Hume. The mid-19th century tale is a brilliant tour de force that comes from the heart and gut as well as the mind. It is less artificially constructed than A S Byatt’s Angels and Insects – which also inhabits the world of 19th century ideas and is also divided into two distinct parts – and it doesn’t suffer from Byatt’s self-consciousness about her feat of the imagination.

Fiona Farrell’s decision to put one half of her book in an upsidedown relation to the other has the incidentally witty effect of emphasising the antipodean situation of the island in relation to the powerful northern hemisphere, but its main purpose is to keep apart the 150 years between the historical and the contemporary story.

3

The modem half of the book works less consistently well for me. Six friends and lovers go to the same island for an overnight stay to celebrate Mike’s 50th birthday. Its first white settlers, the ones we’ve met if we’ve started with the historical half, built the house they camp in, and the surroundings are much as they were when they eventually drove out the original colonists. A commune called Illyria figures in the shared past of the 21st-century characters. Illyria: the name points to the ironies Fiona Farrell handles so deftly. Not only is Illyria Shakespeare’s foreign shore in Twelfth Night where customary practices are turned on their head but the original settlers called their island both Paradise and Harmony. Such associations aren’t spelt out; instead the structure and the characters of the novel often seem to give effortless rise to them.

So Mike has weathered the unrealities of Illyria to become a businessman who intends turning the island into a resort for the world’s wealthiest travellers. His scheme is for top-standard comfort and cuisine combined with a post-9/11 enticement into the safety of a not-yet-terrorised and so-far-uncontaminated nature. Implicitly, this scheme reaches out to the other half of the book where the French peasant gardener, who was the practical one among the earlier colonists, also has to modify his former thinking. And it extends sideways to an inarticulate contemporary environmentalist who, like the French gardener before him, lacks the power to put into effect his own ecological vision for the island.

Layer upon layer of interconnecting subtleties are built into the structure of both halves. So why do I find the modern story less satisfying than the historical one? In spite of skilled work at the subtextual level, its schemes are more obvious; Fiona Farrell is hampered in her need to integrate them by the absence here of the basic surprise of the unknown that underpins the historical half. Her modern characters are more familiar to a 21st century New Zealand reader; so they can be  more readily spotted and slotted into types.

4

Talking about Angels and Insects, Byatt said that because she wrote about 19th century Darwinism and its clash with the established church in Britain, much of what she needed to say was there already; so she didn’t have to confront the problem of developing her characters. Instead she let them be driven by the story and the metaphor. Fiona Farrell has no such writer’s aid in the modern half of her tale, and contemporary New Zealanders going to a party lack the inevitable narrative trajectories of the search for a promised land of 19th century dreamers or the dispossessed.

She resorts to back stories to fill the gaps. This means that instead of finding out what we need to know in the overarching framework of the book, scenes like tea parties and theatricals can give rise to vignettes that are already familiar to New Zealand readers in a generic way if not in Farrell’s distinctive detail. And the strengths of this novel – its powerful underlying idea, associative sideways reachings-out from one strand to another, and above all its refreshing sense of relevance to a country caught up in a globalising world – sometimes get waylaid until she hits her narrative stride again.

Cosiness in a shared context is a temptation for New Zealand writers. A small society far from anywhere else draws them back into the relatively short history that lies within living memory. This can help build up a still-wobbly sense of identity, but it can also lead to rehearsing and re-rehearsing of local themes and occupations at the expense of the imagination’s forward drive.

Fiona Farrell’s modern story opens with a character’s response to his car radio’s reportage of the international aftermath of 9/11. It’s penetrating and wryly witty. Her descriptions of what’s nearby, as the car is driven first up the Kapiti coast then down it, underlie her reaching into the wider world she observes, remembers, hears about through her character’s radio, interprets and conjures up in her vivid and precise manner. This brief scene is powerfully and economically written.

Interconnection between the book’s complex elements, the imaginative richness of the text, and the raciness of a thoroughly good read (despite the occasional lapse inevitable with such a large canvas): these are the characteristics that will draw me back to this wonderfully unusual novel.

 

Shelagh Duckham Cox is a Wellington reviewer. 

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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