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).

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