Reviewed by MARGIE THOMSON
Reading through the notes I took while reading Farrell's new — what? novel? memoir? — I am struck again by the richness of what she's offering us.
This is a lovely book, literary and bookish, as you'd expect from the title, yet totally accessible. The books, whose little extracts pepper the pages, are a way into a story, of marking off and illuminating the life of a woman, Kate, now in middle age, who may or may not be an incarnation of the author herself.
Does it matter? Possibly not, except that one can't help but feel that the book's one weakness — a ghostly, insubstantial 25-year marriage — might have been skimmed over for privacy reasons. Or maybe that's a misreading. On the other hand, one can see that the creation of Kate allows Farrell to think more objectively and perhaps speculatively about herself in a way not possible with the personal pronoun.
The book opens in the present. Kate is following the war on Iraq, but also reading Xenophon's Anabasis, the thrilling account of an ancient Greek military expedition gone wrong. "Cyrus' military expedition would be construed a failure. But Xenophon turned it into literature."
Back in 1950s Oamaru, we move with Kate through an ordinary childhood of the era, keenly observed and excavated, and framed through The Little Red Hen, Milly-Molly-Mandy, The Railway Children and so on, to the chilling discovery at 14 of Rudolf Hess' Commandant of Auschwitz, and, from there, spiritual revolution a la George Bernard Shaw, literary revelation a la Mansfield and, at last, but not until she's on her OE in England, an encounter with the work of Janet Frame.
Although she is not mentioned until page 294, Frame haunts this book. It's inevitable, given that both she and Farrell grew up in Oamaru, and escaped their families to Otago University before heading for character-forging OE. I loved Farrell's book for much the same reasons that I loved Frame's autobiography: for the illustration they both bring of a burgeoning imaginative identity, and their intense familiarity (the New Zealand childhood), yet also of a world just out of reach — the "olden" days, the world of our parents, even our own childhoods, but so different from the world our children are growing up in.
Xenophon's question stalks the pages: "What age am I waiting for to come to myself?" It's the central question of anyone's life, and this whole book is one woman's attempt to find an appropriate answer. The answer, we see, is one that never ceases unfolding.
* Fiona Farrell will be at the Going West festival on Sunday, September 12, at 2.45pm.