By the time Murray lumbers into view on p15 of Fiona Farrell’s latest novel, Limestone, I knew I was in the hands of a writer who really knows what she’s doing. Dr Clare Lacey of the University of Canterbury is flying to Ireland to attend an art history conference in Cork. The theme of the conference is Location/Dis-location – and yes, that title is as meaningful as it sounds. Because Clare, in her late 40s, recently single, and childless, is also on a quest to find her father.
Michael Lacey, a rogue of an Irishman, left Clare’s family home in Oamaru to buy a packet of cigarettes more than 40 years earlier and never came back. Perhaps, after years of fruitless searching, she will find him on this visit to his homeland.
Farrell perfectly captures the tedium of spending 27 hours flying from one side of the world to the other: “too many episodes of Friends and too many miniature dinners … Twenty-seven hours of canned laughter and foil-wrapped stroganoff.” But it wasn’t until Clare spots Murray heading towards her in row 66 of Singapore Airlines flight 298 from Christchurch to Heathrow that I felt myself really relaxing into Limestone.
We’ve all sat next to a Murray: “Brand new Crusaders tee-shirt over straining belly. Brand-new CD cap on top of fiftyish balding head already flushed and beaded with sweat.” His conversation, too, is horribly familiar:
Murray was on to the general decline of the country: the nanny state with its Resource Management Act and all the rest of it. Christ, you couldn’t give your kid a clip over the ear without risking arrest. The country was stuffed and if he was younger he’d be off to Aussie no question.”
The thing that makes Farrell’s riff on Murray so successful is that she knows when to stop. Just as we’re starting to tire of his red-neck views, she segues neatly into another subject altogether – The Lord of the Rings. Clare is not a fan of Tolkien. She was so bored by the first Rings movie she didn’t bother to go and see the others: “She seemed to be the only person in the country who hated The Lord of the Rings.”
She doesn’t like the fact that right from the start it’s obvious Frodo and his mates will survive and make it to Mordor – she much prefers stories with an element of doubt, “just a chance that the writer might give up on the character he or she had so carefully created and drop them over a cliff …. Doubt was hard and sad, but at least it was real. It was interesting.”
But before the significance of that pronouncement can sink in – and, as with so much in Limestone, its significance only becomes apparent in hindsight – Clare’s thoughts have moved on to her ex-partner Paul. He was a keen mountaineer and, unlike Clare, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast. Also, unlike Clare, Paul had no interest in food. He could “eat anything at all, while showing no sign of a palate whatsoever”.
Soon, though, she’s thinking about her sister Maddie, who had a role as an extra in the final film in the Rings trilogy – one of the in-flight movies – and from whom she is now estranged: “They had crossed the boundary to that strange fierce country inhabited by other siblings, the ones you read about in the papers.” A short time later Clare turns her attention to the handsome stranger in the row in front, imagining the conversation they might have had if they had sat next to each other.
In just a few pages, Farrell manages to convey the way the mind skips in an increasingly random way from one subject to another during a long-haul flight, while cleverly introducing most of the main characters and central themes of her novel.
By the end of chapter two, when Clare arrives in Cork, Limestone is well and truly on its way. It’s a good recovery after a slow start. The novel’s opening chapter is a meandering explanation by an apparently nameless first-person narrator about how limestone is formed. “Limestone is a gentle teacher,” the narrator concludes. “It teaches its children about time, and patience, and the beauty that lies in the accumulated detail of small insignificant lives. And I was born in limestone country.”
The idea of a stone created over millennia from the remains of millions of microscopic creatures is ripe with symbolic meaning. But I can’t help feeling that in Limestone Farrell has invested limestone with more significance than it really deserves. In an explanation on her website, Farrell, who, like Clare, was born and raised in Oamaru, says that looking at the big white cliffs of the North Otago landscape helps her grasp the immensity of planetary time: “It begins to make sense to me. I feel the reality of evolutionary time in my own gut.”
That’s all very well, but her attempt to convey this feeling takes seven pages, and is so densely written I had to read it twice just to get my head around it. By the time I turned the page to begin chapter two I was dreading what lay ahead.
As it turned out, what lay ahead was one of the most enjoyable New Zealand novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s almost as if once she got the hard stuff over, once she had established the significance of limestone, and laid the foundations for her narrative, Farrell was able to start using her real voice – chatty, witty, inclined to jump from one apparently unrelated subject to another.
Limestone is told using both first- and third-person narration. The first-person segments are set in the past, and describe events from Clare’s childhood and teenage years. Those in the third person are set in the present, and tell the story of Clare’s trip to Ireland, and her quest to find her father. It sounds confusing, but it’s not. Farrell moves from one perspective to another almost seamlessly, and the authorial voice stays consistent throughout.
At times, reading Limestone feels a bit like having a long conversation with an amusing and extremely talkative friend. One minute you’re nattering about stiff petticoats and pleated tartan skirts in 1960s Oamaru, the next you’re exchanging views about the merits of eating airline puddings, or making fun of a pair of amateur botanists in the dining room of an Irish B and B.
Farrell is particularly good on the foibles of the middle classes. Her descriptions of Clare’s university colleague Elizabeth, who returns from gastronomic tours of Italy armed with recipes to cook in her designer kitchen – recipes whose names she announces in an affected Italian accent – are merciless.
In Limestone Farrell layers detail upon detail, memory upon memory, incident upon incident. She heads down so many narrative cul de sacs that you can’t help wondering if she will ever be able to find her way out again. By the end of the novel, though, the accumulation of details, memories and incidents has fallen into place. While to the reader Limestone can sometimes feel like a hectic ride with no real destination, it becomes clear that the author knows exactly where she is going.
Clare’s quest is successful too, though not in the way she expected it to be. Farrell doesn’t give up on her character or drop her over a cliff, but the truth she discovers is hard and sad – though definitely real and interesting.
In many ways, Limestone is like the dry stone wall that Michael Lacey builds shortly before he disappears from Clare’s life. On their own, the stones in the wall are nothing but stones. Carefully stacked together they make something solid and deeply satisfying.
Ruth Nichol is a Wellington reviewer.