Put on by cunning

by Nicholas Reid / 16 May, 2009
Fiona Farrell is up to something special in Limestone.

The matter of narrative

voice can be a bit of a

bother to some of us

readers. If a novel is

written solely in the first person,

we know nowadays that the narrator

is unreliable and has to be

regarded with a degree of scepticism.

But if there are various narrative

voices, then the author is

seeking to create a different sort

of effect.

Limestone is written in two separate

narrative voices, and Fiona

Farrell is up to something special,

because each voice centres on the

same character.

Clare Lacey is an art historian

from the University of Canterbury,

aged about 50, en route

to an academic conference in

Ireland. As she heads for Cork

and ruminates on the paper she

means to give, she has another

agenda. She wants to find out

what became of her Irish father.

He walked out on her family and

their modest Oamaru home when

she was a little girl.

When Clare thinks about the

more distant past and re-creates

her childhood, Limestone is in the

first person. But "present" events

are in the third person, as is the

more recent past. Chapters alternate

between these two voices, with separate

typefaces in the chapter headings to

point up the duality.

There's an implied split in Clare's consciousness,

a radical distinction between

her past and her present. But there's also

a depth of perspective that couldn't be

created by one narrative voice alone.

The first-person narrator may sometimes

be a little unreliable. At one point,

Clare rages against "coupledom", yet

to the very end she is clearly in need of

somebody to share her life. So there's

some self-deception in the mix. But the

alternate third-person voice gives her

solidity and endorses much that she says.

She isn't all that unreliable after all, and

reality is presented in its layered complexity.

Farrell's narrative strategies are wily

ones. Limestone is not an arbitrary

series of events. Nor is it an unreflective

"quest", even as Clare gets nearer to her

Irish goal. Early in the novel, a wickedly

funny (and accurate) response to The

Lord of the Rings shows what the

author (or the narrator?) thinks of

conventional "quest" stories. This

tale has a tight controlling intelligence

behind it, and what seems

random reflection or digression

falls into its place as the pattern is

revealed.

Yet Farrell's powers of description

are so strong and her details so

precise that it's easy to linger over

the novel's individual episodes.

To savour them. The opinionated

loudmouth whom Clare has

to endure in the seat next to her

on a long-haul flight. The bitcheries

and pecking order at academic

conferences, with show-off

younger lecturers trying to make

their mark. The real Irish pub

night, which stands in contrast

to the version of Ireland sold to

tourists. And, most vividly, those

childhood scenes in New Zealand

in the late 1950s and early 60s,

with the child observing clearly

but not always understanding;

experiencing and rejecting a

child's version of Catholicism;

and once inadvertently causing

great unhappiness.

Then, of course, there is Dad

Building a limestone wall.

It could be that rather too many

narrative revelations come in the

last few chapters. It could be that

the central image of limestone,

building itself up from millions

of microscopic creatures, doesn't

quite work as the intended idea

of human solidarity or philosophical

recompense for botched

human relationships. But these

are quibbles.

This is a cunningly contrived, beautifully

written and wonderfully readable

novel. Not only does it say much about

that peculiar New Zealand unease over

ancestral roots, those nagging questions

of identity, but page for page it has the

type of prose that can only be written

by somebody who knows exactly what

effects she means to create and

exactly how to create them. A

novelist at the top of her form, in

other words.

LIMESTONE, by Fiona Farrell

(Vintage, $29.99).

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

A History of Magic reveals our compulsion to magical thinking
86134 2018-01-23 00:00:00Z Television

A History of Magic reveals our compulsion to magic…

by Catherine Woulfe

Harry Potter is the starting point for an enchanting documentary about the history of magic.

Read more
The awards season reckons with a new world
86173 2018-01-23 00:00:00Z Television

The awards season reckons with a new world

by Diana Wichtel

A tone of anger and uplift prevailed – thanks to #MeToo and Time's Up – as the first cab of the awards season left the rank.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern broke baby news to Winston Peters over tea and sandwiches
86125 2018-01-22 08:15:08Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern broke baby news to Winston Peters o…

by RNZ

Deputy Prime Minister got a home visit by Ms Ardern to break the news of her pregnancy.

Read more
Road toll: 'Without a doubt' increase is linked to police cuts
86121 2018-01-22 07:22:48Z Social issues

Road toll: 'Without a doubt' increase is linked to…

by Emile Donovan and Tim Brown

Nearly 100 dedicated road police positions have been cut in the past five years, while the road toll rose 50 percent increase in the same period.

Read more
New Mongrel Mob app 'bloody stupid' and insensitive
86117 2018-01-22 06:57:35Z Social issues

New Mongrel Mob app 'bloody stupid' and insensitiv…

by Emma Hatton

Gang violence mediators say a Mongrel Mob-themed game is 'stupid', but its maker says he was just taking advantage of a gap in the market.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern: Government's focus turns to '300-day plan'
86114 2018-01-22 06:38:40Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern: Government's focus turns to '300-d…

by Mei Heron

Labour's caucus meets for the first time this year, with the PM saying there are still policies to be finalised for the govt's first 100 days.

Read more
New Zealanders have long loved a good ghost story
86094 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z History

New Zealanders have long loved a good ghost story

by Redmer Yska

We New Zealanders are known for being down to earth and no-nonsense, but there's a surprising number of Kiwi stories with a supernatural element.

Read more
How to avoid burnout at work
86051 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z Psychology

How to avoid burnout at work

by Marc Wilson

Taking positive steps at work will help keep weariness at bay.

Read more