A hundred shards of potent remedy: an interview with Fiona Farrell about Decline and Fall on Savage Street

I am standing next to the old Government Building in Christchurch. It’s early morning and the air is crisp and smells of expectations. In front of me is the cathedral in ruins. But from where I stand, I can also see a new building coming up. The new central library, with its promise of healing …

CoverI am waiting here to meet Fiona Farrell to talk about her new book, which has been launched last week. Decline and fall on Savage Street, a fiction sister to non-fiction The villa at the edge of the empire, is yet another joyful gift with sophisticated form, lovable characters, relevant issues and healing properties that should not be underestimated.

fiona farrell
Fiona Farrell. Image supplied.

Congratulations Fiona, for another beautiful gift that you have given to the city of Christchurch and also to the wider community.

Thank you.

I was really impressed by the form of this book. It’s a novel but at the same time, each chapter works on its own like a short story and it stands on its own like a delicately crafted jewel. I was wondering where did the idea for the form come from?

From the city itself, from the fact that everything seemed to be falling into little bits. When I started writing The Villa at the edge of the empire, the fact one, that’s a twin to this one, I wrote that in small chunks. I thought of them as bricks or little pieces of timber, salvageable, and then you put them all together to make a shape, so it was like a salvage operation.

I also felt that it’s wasn’t just the physical destruction of the city, but what I was feeling as an older woman who has lived here for nearly 70 years, was the demolition of a social structure that sustained people, and its replacement with lots of individualist policies and theories that are affecting the way people live in this country. It felt like it wasn’t just a physical demolition, but a social and political one. So I wanted to put all these little bits together and try and reconstruct a sort of history out of all these bits and pieces. A bit like a Kiwi crib, when you knock all your bits together, I think that’s very New Zealand style.

The whole story is a great portrait of the 20th century. The history is often happening in the background, but the reader is constantly aware of it. I had a feeling that all the way through the story, the terrifying events in history were somehow distant, they were happening far away and to others. Only with the earthquake it becomes real and is happening to characters of the story. People are suddenly part of this terrible history.

Yes, it becomes very intimate and personal with the quake. One of the challenges in writing the book was to find a little link between an event (like World War Two), a personal intimate link with here and something that would leave its mark on a house, particularly this individual house in this imagined street.

Sometimes it would be because someone remembered the house. The man in World War Two, who is wounded, has a photograph of the corner of the house. Later on in the story, there’s a painting of him by a woman that he wanted to marry, who lives in a house. This painting has a shadow under a tree, which is a reference to him. So it would be a link like that, or someone might be directly involved in a major event, like WWII, or there might be a kind of echo of it. Like with Eric, the agent, who behaves like the McCarthy-ist spies in America, but does it in this little house.

Sometimes it’s a sort of an echo, and sometimes it’s a metaphor. So when the Berlin Wall falls down and all the barriers collapse in other parts of the world, it’s the kitchen wall that’s been taken down in the house, and two families are blended together. So sometimes it’s a metaphor, sometimes it’s an actual link.

Eric is one of the characters that I really didn’t grasp. He was the most mysterious figure in the whole story for me, but I did get a feeling that he might be a spy.

Yes, well, he’s an agent. He’s an agent of the government survey of the people who were suspected to be communists in the late 40s and 50s. There was this kind of anti-communist agitation here, as it was all over the world, in places like America and Britain. People were singled out if they were suspected of having communist sympathies. So he’s just an echo of that over here in Christchurch.

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Alluring cover of Fiona’s new book is work of Sarah Healey.

The other thing I was very impressed by was the form of each chapter, the way you form the beginning and the end. It seems very simple, but it’s extremely powerful because it gives you a feeling of a flow that’s beyond human control, that life is so much bigger and complex and stretches beyond the single events that are portrayed in the book.

I like leaving the beginning and the end of the chapter ragged, so you come in with a few dots in the middle of the sentence. Again it’s a part of that salvaging, it’s that the story is just a little piece that’s been salvaged and there’s a whole lot of other stories. So I’ve just got this one which has got torn edges and it doesn’t properly end either, it’s got a torn ending. So that story can continue out of sight.

I always think fiction is what you read, the story on the page, but then there are all the other stories that are implied within that book. That’s a sort of thing that’s been rather fashionable I suppose in the last 20 years or so, to make books out of minor characters for example or to say what would happen if something else had eventuated, to reframe the known story. That’s a sort of thing I’m working on as well, that idea that there’s a whole other narrative, a great big narrative, and you just choose this little bit. That’s the bit that you pick up from a ground, it’s just that little brick and you pick it up and you hold that one up. It’s kind of salvaging operation.

At the same time, that little brick tells the wider story as well, it’s so entwined in its context, which can have social, political, economic, environmental weight … so you can actually see a whole house in that little brick. I think that’s very hard to achieve and is at the same time the beauty of fiction.

Yes, that’s exactly right. In this particular fiction, it’s always a problem how you’re going to shape the material and tell a story. For me, it always has to start with structure. I always have to have a shape in my head. Other people might start with a character, or an event, or something like that, but for me, it’s a shape

I often find, when I’m talking about my books, I do this – an arch (Fiona draws an arch with her hand in the mid air) or a span. In this one, the shape is one hundred little pieces and once I have that in my head, once I have a shape clear, and the way I’m going to present it, everything falls into place. That dictates what I can tell, how long the book can be. It dictates how much you can actually pack into a short chapter, it gives you a very precise formula in which you can work.

It sounds a bit dry, but for me, it’s very reassuring, because it’s such a massive material and you could just tell a great sweeping saga that went straight through from A to B, but for me, it feels more comfortable. I feel at ease, writing this small precise pieces and it makes me very, very particular and very concentrated. It’s like writing a poem or a short piece of fiction. So I have to be economical, but I have to pack into that something about the character, I have to move the narrative forward, I have to put the reference to the house, there are particular things that I have to do within that tiny shape and it disciplines me.

I have noticed the voices of characters came through very well in each chapter. You can tell straight away which character is telling the story. I think you captured those voices really well.

I really enjoyed writing them all, I loved writing Poppy, she was my favourite. I liked all of them, even Eric in his funny, disturbing way.

I was really fascinated by the power of your imagination, I think it shines in the scope of various people who lived in the house and their stories. Where do you get the ideas from? There is such an abundance of them in this book.

The problem I have is too many ideas. The problem is limiting them. That’s really the problem I have, it’s the selecting.

Wow. It must be nice to have that problem, as a writer, I guess?

I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage. It’s not an advantage to have loads of ideas because you still have to select and still have to discipline yourself, you have to restrain, what can happen, and make choices. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

I guess that’s when your form helps.

It does, because it let me write lots of different little stories, which I enjoyed. And I also liked discovering history, things that I found by coming to the library and looking through the microfilm. I still like sitting in the library and finding all material that’s there.

Wongi's art on St Asaph Street
Whare & Whānau by Wongi Wilson, St Asaph Street. Flickr 2014-12-19-IMG_4045

If we return back to the characters, and I might be a bit biased here, but I got a feeling that women characters are really holding up the households in the house all the way through the book until the earthquake hits. That’s when female character Janey intuitively gives up and her husband Rob is trying to save the situation and is trying to hold it all together.

Yes, that’s true particularly for the first part, when Violet is there for a long long time. And I suppose Min and the hippy commune as well. I wanted to try to keep the balance, because history is often told from a male point of view and particularly in this country, or anywhere really. It can very often be a history of great male figures. I’m an old 70s feminist and we’ve been fighting that one for a very very long time. All my life really. It’s also that I do know how female characters work. I’m less secure when I’m writing male characters. I can understand the complexities of a female thinking. I wanted to try to keep the balance.

I think it is a good balance, especially with Rob, he balances it out. And Paul as well.

I loved Rob. He keeps on trying to make his pizza oven, I thought he was gorgeous.

It was very interesting to observe different timelines, which exist in the novel. One is the human-scale time. The other two are much slower and they belong to the natural world, have their own rhythm. Again, these two timelines, one of the river and the other of the earth, they create a different perspective of events. They give the perspective of human insignificance compared to the natural world, a reality that just passes by in its own slow rhythm.

Yes, and very magical and wonderful one. I find eels, the journey of those big female eels when they’re eighty, ninety, hundred years old, back up to spawn, amazing. How that’s imprinted in a thing that’s a size of a whitebait on arrival! I’m just in awe of the natural world, and I’ve become more so as I get older. It just seems more and more extraordinary. And valuable and a real corrective to human self-importance. We just have to do the best we can here, and live as well as we can, but make it possible for everything else to live as well. We really have been on a crazy path.

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Beautiful text design and illustrations by Rachel Clark.

 

I think out of your characters Sybil is the one most connected to the natural world.

She is, though she never moves outside of the house and garden, she stays there all her life, so she’s the one who lives the most restricted life in some ways. I wanted to show that idea that you can have this tiny, little, precise, fixed environment, but it’s got everything in it. If you just want to look at it. She looks, she’s the one who sees things. Partly because she’s been damaged slightly by almost drowning, after falling off the raft. But she sees the world very clearly and understands the beauty of animals and plants. She never moves much beyond the gate, very rarely.

Though she lives very rich life, she’s mostly turned inwards. And outwards to the beauty around her. I really liked her.

I did too. Solid little lady in her little grubby old dungarees. She’s great, little witch lady.

But also very strong at the same time.

Yes, she’s very determined, very strong, sure about who she is and what she’s doing. Yes, I liked her.

There are also many metaphorical layers in your novel. A lot of metaphors are kept in the frame of each chapter, but many flow all the way through the book. The most compelling one for me was the image of the architect at the beginning of the narrative. I saw it as a metaphor for a writer, who’s crafting lives of characters. Throughout the book it gains even greater importance, it’s almost a god-like figure. I imagined you in this figure of an architect.

It’s the story of creation. The Biblical story is the creation of the chaos and there’s the world, the natural world, and the God creating everything. But that’s the story of creation as an over-reaching western myth, or for some people it’s belief. But it’s also what actually happens, this idea of random existence and the way we create structures out of random events, whether they’re the way we interpret something that’s happened and make narratives out of it, or, whether we decide we need a shelter and we assemble lots of random pieces together from all over the place and we make a shelter for ourselves.

Because we need shelter, we’re a naked little animal without a shelter. It’s a necessity for us as a creature. What I liked about the architect is partly that he adds a little tower. He’s doing something very practical and right at the end, just before he goes off for his lunch, he adds a little detail, which is just a silly little tower, little turret with a room in it. And because of that tower, because he added that to the house, certain kinds of people keep getting attracted to the building, because it’s got a kind of romantic playfulness. There’s sort of joy in it. And each of them brings their own imagery to the idea of the tower or the turret.

What interests me is that the house never really grows into a character. It stays in the centre of the novel, it works as a setting, becomes a home and a sanctuary for so many generations, until the end, when it gets demolished and I think that’s when it becomes the most alive. It explodes into life.

Yes, just like the eel, living its 100 years and then it explodes. I love that. It wasn’t something I planned, but I love it. Thank you. I’m glad that’s how it seems.

This book is a perfect read for someone who hasn’t experienced the Christchurch earthquake and post-earthquake situation but is intrigued in how it must have felt, how it must have been on a personal level. I think you captured the aftermath, all the emotions, frustrations and everyday struggle extremely well. Only art allows us to capture life in such ways.

Yes, exactly, I think so too. I think there’s a certain amount you gain from reading facts, of course there is. You can read books about places or events, which are factual and have enormous power. But to really find out, to get in the intimate part of it, how it affects things like, how you are in bed with someone, or how a child feels, you do it through fiction. Often children’s feelings about war or big national or international events are at a distance or very limited. That’s what fiction can do, it’s investigative and curious.

According to Dale Spender and his work The mothers of the novel, the novel developed as a female form. It developed at the same time as men were going off on voyages of exploration and scientific enquiry, coming to New Zealand, apart from anywhere else. But women were not able to do that, and so stuck at home, within those four walls, they started speculating and investigating through fiction. And that’s how the novel started, at least in the English language, I don’t know if it’s the same across Europe. It was disregarded as something trivial, frivolous, something that was not important. That’s a sort of thing that you have all the time in Jane Austen: reading novels is a waste of time, it’s not important. She’s writing out of that kind of environment, but there were hundreds and hundreds of novels being written.

It’s always been investigative, a kind of scientific experiment. You are working on an experimental level, you’re saying, if I put these things together, what might happen. It’s a really profound art form. I really love fiction. That’s why I wanted to try to write about this. It was difficult, but I did want to try to write about this big event.

Sign O' the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016
Sign O’ the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016. Flickr 2016-10-16-IMG_6260

It’s interesting what you refer to in your note at the end of the book – that the first novel about WWII, Elizabeth Bowen’s The heat of the day, was written three years after the war finished.

Yes, the first that I could find anyway, yes. I think the difficulty is to get the mind calm enough to be able to write about such big events. And it is a kind of individualist expression and you do need a degree of calm to be able to do it. Just to be able to put the words on the page really.

You also need enough distance, a perspective, which takes time, I guess.

Yes, and the Heat of the day is a very peculiar book. It’s very sexual, that’s the thing that’s the most dominant about it. It’s about these fleeting sexual encounters in London after the Blitz. That’s possibly the expression of her personality, but also part of that confusion. It’s very primal. I think it does require distance, it’s quite confused book. I was trying to avoid that, keeping it very precise and very clear.

If we touch on political issues in the book, first of all, I really like the nickname – Big Buffoon. It’s very clear who that refers to.

Well, Rob can’t stand him. It’s a character, it’s not me.

Rob is very very angry and frustrated. I think a lot of people will easily relate to him.

That’s the other thing you can do in fiction, you can express multiple points of view of any given event. It’s not just one monolithic variation of how things are.

Sign O' the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016
Sign O’ the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016. Flickr 2016-10-16-IMG_6256

I think a lot of political issues that are expressed through characters in this book are done so in a very powerful way. When I was reading Liz’s story, I got so angry.

Yes, about women, not being able to access abortion. Absolutely. That’s based to some extent on a book by Margaret Sparrow, who was a doctor in Wellington, who fought to have abortion made legal. She, like a lot of people, who fought that particular battle, assembled a book of oral histories called Abortion then and now, which includes first person accounts of what it was like to get an abortion in an illegal way, in someone’s front room or back room. And the fear of it and sordid things that happened as a result of that. These women were often very young, very vulnerable and desperate, so people were able to exploit that. Not just financially, but also in other ways.

What happens in the novel is actually what people have reported. Not just once, that’s been the experience of loads of women. This issues had been raised again in this election. The prime minister has already flagged that he’s opposed to abortion. It may be something that comes up in the next term, who knows.

I think a lot of issues that are present throughout the story are extremely relevant to what’s happening today: war, conscientious objection, immigration issues, gender inequality, environmental problems …

Possibly that’s because whenever you write a historical novel, you’re actually writing about now. You’re writing about the past, but you’re really writing about now. It doesn’t matter what it is. The novels about Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, they are to some extent reflections of our curiosity about celebrity. We are interested in clothes, in the machinations, just as we are in people like Trump.

The 20th century is a long period, but on some level, it’s also very short period and we are still engaged in it. We are still dealing with political things that were founded at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re still in those political parties, we’re still dealing with the same sorts of issues and they are not going to go away. It’s an ongoing flood. Like the river. And we are caught in it.

Thank you very much, Fiona. Would you like to share anything else about the book?

I hope that people find it a rich book. That’s what I really hope. That they’ll find things they’re interested in, or they share some of the feelings of the characters, that they can see them and that it’s vivid enough. I just hope it’s a rich book, with lots of pleasures for a reader. That’s what I’m hoping.

Well, it definitely is for me.

Find out more:

Going a-Viking with Linnea Hartsuyker

I love a good work of hard-hitting historical fiction, and it doesn’t get much better than a viking saga!

The best example is The Long Ship by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson – it’s probably the oldest, most famous, and (for me at least) the bench mark against which all others are measured.

So I was excited to learn that a new author, Linnea Hartsuyker has entered the genre with her new debut novel The Half Drowned King.

Before we talk about the story – volume one in a trilogy to come, let’s go over what we know about the author…

  1. She spent her childhood in Ithica (US) living on the edges of a large forest
  2. She has qualifications in Creative Writing, and Material Science and Engineering
  3. She traces her own lineage back to Harald Fairhair (Harfagr – the first King of Norway)
  4. She enjoys a life of travel, food & competes in Strong-Woman events

Fair to say then that she’s got the background to deliver some knowledgeable and interesting stories and I’m very pleased to say that this first installment of her trilogy is richly layered with culture, has plenty of grit and action, and keeps decent pace while outlining the lives of the people of ancient Norway.

The story is centred around a brother and sister, Ragnvald and Svanhild, as they negotiate the brutal realities of life in times of upheaval and uncertainty.

Ragnvald has been betrayed and left for dead by an assassination attempt orchestrated by his step-father and embarks on the slow road of obtaining a satisfying vengeance – all the while trying to ingratiate himself into the fold and remain useful to the young man who would be King of a united Norway, Harald Fairhair.

Meanwhile Svanhild has her own worries. Suffering abuses at the hands of the stepfather who wants her out of the way, he tries to marry her off to a local Jarl. But hearing of Ragnvald’s survival she is desperate to be reunited with her brother and protector so flees to find him – her story takes some interesting turns, none of which I will write about as I’d prefer you read the book, but suffice to say life unfolds in unusual and unexpected ways for all of us and Svanhild’s story is equal parts light and dark.

The most impressive aspect of this book is the way in which the author describes events and drives the plot by placing events into cultural context. A great example of this is after Ragnvalds survival and recuperation from his “near-death experience”. His plan to seek revenge entails arriving at the annual ting, a yearly gathering of the Kings and Jarls of Norway, and following the traditional route of challenging his rival to either a formal duel or recompense in front of witnesses and within their framework of honour – not your usual story of confrontation, and clever writing makes this an engaging device that carries the plot along nicely.

The action scenes are brutal, blood, and injuries occur to significant characters – there’s nothing worse than a lead character who is seemingly immune to everything that befalls everyone else! There is an amount of battle tactics but it’s not overly done, and the common folk are never forgotten.

She is also very good at her descriptions of place, giving the reader a good sense of the landscape, environment, and weather conditions, and how these affect the character, the plot, and the action.

Also, by centring the story on a young man and a young woman the author is able to demonstrate the cultural expectations, limitations, and values of young people living in that environment and under those circumstances. It gives great depth and width to the story and provides a broader avenue of access for readers while giving a greater cultural context to the times.

So with strong characters, a beaut story of revenge, lots of well described battle-action & an amazing sense of place, this book ticks a lot of boxes and stacks right up against The Long Ships!

If you are a fan of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction and are drawn to stories by Giles Kristian, Bernard Cornwell, or even George R. R. Martin, then give this series a go, you should not be disappointed!

Skol!

The Half-Drowned King

The Half Drowned King
by Linnea Hartsuyker
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781408708798

Want more hard-hitting historical fiction recommendations? Try my Historical Fiction of the masses list

The well-mannered read

In this world of alternative truths, acts of terrorism, online dating and climate change, sometimes what one really needs is a well-mannered book. In well-mannered books there is no gratuitous swearing, sex is private, and war (a sometimes necessary evil?) is viewed from a big picture perspective. These are books in which Mr Please and Mr Thank-you have not yet left the building.

A Gentleman in MoscowAnd if you are thinking the descending scale “Boring”, you could not be more wrong. Take A Gentleman in Moscow as an exquisite example of a well-mannered read. Count Rostov (an unrepentant aristocrat) is placed under house arrest for life in 1922 in The Metropol Hotel opposite the Kremlin. The book is 462  pages long and almost all of the action takes place in that grand old hotel.  Count Rostov is an urbane, witty, positively likeable character – what is more, the book is peopled by a fascinating array of eccentrics.

As time passes, the world outside of the hotel changes and in a conversation with his lover Anushka, Count Rostov gives his view on the conveniences of modern life such as remote garage door openers:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute…….To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Hector and the Search for HappinessAnother contemporary author who writes in a very well-mannered way is Francois Lelord. In his novel Hector and the Search for Happiness, a young French psychiatrist (Hector) surely knows about love, sex, anxiety and behaviour problems. Indeed, this novel touches on all manner of problematic topics like prostitution and drug dealing, but in a very polite way.

You will be on a spectrum with your opinion of these books: from charming, to naïve, to patronising and worse. But I myself was charmed. So much so, I was delighted to hear that a film has been made of the first book. Imagine then my dismay when I learned that the film had turned its back on its French origins, been cast with a British psychiatrist, and set in the USA. How rude, not at all well-mannered. This would not have happened had Hector and Count Rostov met and formed a political party and taken over the world!

In the end Hector comes up with 23 “Life Lessons on Happiness” from all his travels. It seems appropriate to end with lesson no.5

Sometimes happiness is not knowing the full story

Just read the books!

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

New Books – 29 June

Hi readers, some treats this week:

Cover of What happened, Miss Simone

This biography caught my eye – the authorised story of Nina Simone.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is inspired by a documentary. Music journalist Alan Light (The Holy or Unbroken : Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of Hallelujah, and Lets Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain) draws on Nina’s diaries, rare interviews and her daughter’s memories to tell the story of the ‘real’ Miss Simone’ – a classically trained pianist, civil rights activist and one of the greatest artists of the last century. Did you know she rang David Bowie often? His cover of Wild is The Wind is one of my favourites.

Cover of The switchNext up, some Sci-fi. The Switch is Justina Robson’s twelfth book. She’s won two Arthur C. Clarke awards and been nominated for many others. GoodReads is calling this one ‘ground breaking.’

Harmony is a ‘perfect’ society. To maintain this illusion, the defective are ‘dealt with’ (eradicated). Nico and Twostar are two tough cookies from the slums. They are survivors. Can they overcome Nico being sentenced to death for murder, or the loss of his mind?

Cover of The river singsThe River Sings is Sandra Leigh Price’s second book. An historical novel, it has been awarded the Women’s Weekly Book Club Great Read seal of approval.

The River Sings follows the fortunes of Eglantine, from mysterious beginnings in London to her father’s transportation to the Australian colonies for pick-pocketing. Eglantine must live by her wits and follow his footsteps if she is to survive.

Cover of Lies the mushroom pickers toldIn Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told, by Tom Phelan, journalist Patrick Bracken returns to the village of his childhood in Gohen, Ireland. He’s come back to investigate two deaths that occurred when he was a child. Patrick knows the deaths weren’t accidental, the legal ruling, because he and his best friend were witnesses…

Anne Boleyn : A King’s Obsession

CoverHistory tells us why she died. This captivating novel shows her as she lived.

Alison Weir has an impressive body of work as a historical writer – both non-fiction and fiction – but I was amazed that she was willing to start a huge new series entitled ‘Six Tudor Queens’.

So far she has published Katharine of Aragon: The True Queen and has followed this up with the queen I am most fascinated by – Anne Boleyn.  True, Alison has written extensively on the Tudor period and possibly having previously written The Six Wives of Henry VIII had all the groundwork and research under her belt for such a massive endeavour …

Cover

My fascination for the 2nd consort of Henry VIII began as a child when I used to visit Hever Castle, the family home of the Boleyn family. Privately owned, but open to the public, there were huge grounds for kids to run themselves into exhaustion, Italian gardens, and an impressive lake. More importantly there was a small-scale castle with drawbridge over the moat that housed giant koi carp. Inside the castle there was abundant family history with an Armoury and severe looking family portraits – an ideal way to absorb an episode of English Tudor history!

There has been much information amassed about Henry’s reign and numerous mentions of Hever, but I knew very little about the formative years of Anne which is where this book – although fictional – is truly amazing.  The early relationship that Anne had with her brothers and sister; the education received at the Courts of Burgundy and France, including an early introduction to feminist writers, were the details required to make Anne a much more sympathetic character than previously portrayed.

Through the narrative we begin to understand Anne’s motivations for her behaviour at the English Court, especially concerning her indifference to the increasingly besotted Henry VIII. Political and religious alliances through marriage was something the Monarch had to consider in case it weakened present and future Tudor rule and Anne’s romantic union with Henry Percy was quickly thwarted. Anne’s outrage at this ‘slight’ made her behaviour especially cool when dealing with the King – he was not used to this in women and it had the effect of increasing his romantic ardour.

Anne was quick to realise the power this infatuation gave her. She walked the precarious path to marriage and a Crown, quickly followed by a rapid descent once Henry VIII grew bored with her. Anne, for all her feminist intellect and political astuteness did not make the connection that she was still only female in a male-dominated society — and therefore her only requirement as Queen was to provide England with a male heir. That, coupled with her misguided belief that she was ‘equal’ to Henry, proved to be her undoing.

The personal panic I felt whilst reading this – a young woman who had seriously miscalculated her ability to keep her husband enthralled, and the lengths that Henry was prepared to go to ensure a son would succeed to the English Throne again illustrates the power of the writing.

The fact that Alison Weir takes us ‘along for the ride’ is positive testament to her ability as a writer.  The reader cannot know with certainty what went on, but there is enough fact in this fictional tale to make it totally believable.

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession
by Alison Weir
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472227621

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Stella Duffy at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?

I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.

Liz Grant and Stella Duffy. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. The Piano. Monday 15 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-15-IMG_0166

Family

Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.

“There’s no place like home”

Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.

Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:

Cover of London Lies BeneathYou know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?

She shook her head.

He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.

— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy

Ngaio Marsh

When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!

Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.

I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.

Cover of The Hidden RoomCover of Round About a Pound a WeekCover of Died in the Wool

Buses, Byzantium and fangirling Stella Duffy

image_proxyMany years ago I used to bus up and down the Walworth Road and round the Elephant and Castle, south of the Thames in London, either on the 68 or the 468 (if memory serves me right Janet Frame used to take one of those buses, or one very similar).

While I’d spend quite a lot of that time reading I also used to enjoy looking out of the window at the variety of people and places. I always enjoyed the Mixed Blessings Bakery, Rimworld the hat shop, and the halal noodle bar. On a more serious note, there was also a memorial to victims of the Blitz on the side of the Cuming Museum. As with any city it was a true palimpsest, with many layers of history side by side and intermingled.

Imagine my nostalgia when the pages of a book took me on that same journey, but decades earlier. A book which has a dedication which talks of a taniwha in the Thames. I just loved Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath, so rich and evocative of the melting pot of the city in 1912.

This sense of place and history and connections is one of many reasons I am so excited that Stella is coming to the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season on 15th May to talk about her latest books, including London Lies Beneath, and her task of finishing Ngaio Marsh‘s unfinished Money in the Morgue.

Stella Duffy, photo by
Stella Duffy, photo by Gino Spiro

Stella writes and campaigns in many areas, such as the arts, breast cancer, women’s and LGBT issues, and has worked in the theatre and written a number of novels and short stories. More recently she has become a co-director of Fun Palaces – a weekend each year where a variety of venues and locations enable arts and science for all, with a belief that community belongs at the core of all culture. They are a brilliant idea and Central Library Peterborough has had the opportunity to host a Fun Palace for the last couple of years.

I have also only just realised that Stella has written fiction about the Empress Theodora – I do love a bit of Byzantium!

I can’t wait for 15th May and hope to see you there.

The Pearl Thief

Cover of Code Name VerityElizabeth Wein has been one of my must-read authors since reading the beautiful punch in the gut that is Code Name Verity a few years ago. I’ve since tracked down the rest of her bibliography and can honestly say there isn’t a book she’s written that I haven’t loved.

This probably doesn’t make sense to you if you’re not a re-reader, but there are certain books that worm their way into your heart and you need to read them again in order to spend more time with your favourite characters. Books that make you grin foolishly or tear up on the bus. Books that make you thrust a copy into your friends’ hands and say: ‘Read this! It made me have feelings and I need you to read it so that we can have feelings together!’

Elizabeth Wein frequently provokes such outbursts from me. (Sorry, friends.) So I was very excited to read her latest novel The Pearl Thief. Technically it’s a prequel to Code Name Verity but it works well as a standalone.

Cover of The Pearl ThiefJulie arrives at her recently deceased grandfather’s estate in Scotland in 1938, having come home early from boarding school. No one’s around so she wanders down to the river in her brother’s kilt and an old jersey, enjoying the summer afternoon. She falls asleep tickling the trout… and then wakes up in hospital with a giant bump on her head and no memory of what happened.

This is only one of the mysteries she has to solve, as missing scholars, dead bodies and stolen river pearls start to pile up, along with a lot of unfounded local suspicion toward the Scottish Traveller community. Which is awkward as Julie is getting to be quite good friends with two Traveller siblings, Euan and Ellen. Will they figure out the real culprit before the Travellers are framed for the crime?

So many of my favourite things contained in one book: mystery, archaeology, librarians, and Julie running around the moors dressed as Davie Balfour from Kidnapped!, kissing the local girls. Sound like you? Reserve a copy of The Pearl Thief now and beat the rush! And if you also have feelings about Elizabeth Wein’s books and need to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Pearl Thief
by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion
ISBN: 9781484717165

ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover of Rose Under FireCover of Black Dove, White RavenCover of A Coalition of LionsCover of The Sunbird

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

y648This doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but I can honestly say that I loved this book! I’ve only ever really thought of Jackie French in terms of children’s and young adult fiction so was pleasantly surprised to see her grown up offering – If Blood Should Stain the Wattle.

Now it is probably the Australian in me, but I especially loved how Jackie uses famous Australian poetry and folklore that brought a ‘familiar’ spark to the story for me.

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle is full of wonderful, well established characters that have appeared in Jackie French’s earlier ‘Matilda’ series. I haven’t read any of these books yet but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this one; instead it made me want to experience them all.

There are fabulous strong female characters who are making their mark in Gibber’s Creek, finding love and setting their sights on conquering the world. Okay, maybe just Australia. Then we have the odd spiritual moment where they converse with ghosts and even manage to peek through time itself. But this is the seventies so the story wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a hippy commune on the edge of Gibber’s Creek and a ‘cult leader’ who is receiving messages from aliens. Did I mention that this is also the story of the Whitlam government coming to power?

Stop, come back! Don’t be put off by the inclusion of politicians and their shenanigans within the pages. Jackie French has cleverly woven the information into short excerpts from newspaper reports, and by having characters Jed Kelly and Matilda campaigning to support a Labor government. No boring political twaddle in sight; instead we get to experience first hand what it was like when the Whitlam Government came to power in early 1970s Australia and the subsequent historic dismissal of Gough Whitlam by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
This book really does have something for everyone and it won’t disappoint.

The Matilda series began as a trilogy, became a quartet. It was meant to be a history of our nation told from one country town, and the viewpoints of those who had no political voice in 1892, when the series begins: women, indigenous people, Chinese, Afghans.
But, by book four, I realised that history didn’t stop just because I was born, and that the series will continue as long as I live.” (Jackie French)

The quartet Jackie French is referring to is now a sextet – and who knows how many more there may be. So if you want to start at the very beginning the titles in order are:

  1. A Waltz for Matilda
  2. The Girl From Snowy River
  3. The Road to Gundagai
  4. To Love a Sunburnt Country
  5. The Ghost by the Billabong
  6. If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Cover of A waltz for MatildaCover of the girl from Snowy Riverimage_proxy[3]Cover of To love a sunburnt countryCover of The ghost by the billabongCover of If Blood should stain the wattle

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460753118