One Hundred Small Chapters

One Hundred Ways to Read  A CityDid I want to read a book about Christchurch?

I’d seen the destruction of the earthquakes, later vast expanses of nothingness and recently, steps of reconstruction. I’d watched John Campbell cover stories on television about it and each Saturday for the last five years I’d read all about it in The Press.  (Maybe, thought I knew it.)

But then in May, a gift of Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the Edge of the Empire. One Hundred Ways to Read a City arrived.

“It’s had amazing reviews,” my widely read friend eyeballed me.

 A flick through the first short chapter – and I was hooked.

At once Fiona Farrell has us flying to music over maps: swooping down over Christchurch, looking at the blueprint of dreams and promises, back into the history of Canterbury, ahead to the aftermath of the earthquakes. She writes about historical details I’ve never heard of, ideas I’ve never thought of.

This writing is pure poetry. It’s  beautiful.  For a second, as the entire city is flung in to the air, there is unison. Then we fall back to earth and the map smashed into a hundred tiny pieces.  This is the first earthquake.

But after the more damaging earthquake in February 2011, central government intervened and it’s here that Farrell’s imaginative prose belies her anger, as the government over-rode the wishes of the Christchurch people.  Now, five years later, it’s all about bureaucracy, bricks and mortar, the role of insurance companies and Government. Or lack of it.

Gerry Brownlee, the face of NZ Government wiped his hands.  “It’s all over to the insurers,” he said.  He’s often quoted. After Kiwi AMI almost folded under the strain, Fiona Farrell writes that the catastrophe was made more bitter by overseas insurance companies rubbing their hands at our misfortune: Australian IAG reported massive gains, insurance settlements were deliberately delayed. The three Ds, Delay Deny, Defend, aroused feelings of anger and frustration for people at the mercy of the insurers in Christchurch, as it does for the reader.

Then there’s the issue of heritage.  As a welcome break from the intensity of Christchurch, Fiona Farrell takes us with her to L’Aquila in Italy for sixty-two pages. Here she fills us with empathy of loss and sadness for the Italians after their earthquake.  But also admiration and envy.

In L’Aquila it’s the same as Christchurch, but different.  Same – when will the rebuild of their city be finished? This year, next year sometime never.

Different.  Nothing in L’Aquila is to be demolished. The entire place is to be rebuilt stone by stone.  In Christchurch Gerry Brownlee ordered “all the dungers down irrespective of their heritage.”  Fiona Farrell describes how a new small auditorium in L’Aquila is to be built of wood.  Not so in Christchurch where a conference centre, a monstrous edifice in concrete and cement is planned.

Yet this book does not just analyse and record the big impersonal picture. It’s also a story of Fiona Farrell’s love of Christchurch.  As well, she takes us on a personal trip to the area she lived in Christchurch, the Avon Loop. We even get to look at her damaged flat and hear about her marriage, and the end of it.

And in amongst these ghastly natural and man-made disasters, we see how the Christchurch people were isolated.  Where was the rest of New Zealand when they needed them? If this happened on your home turf, who would bat for you?  It’s sad.  Scary.

And bundled up in all these emotions, is the pure joy of reading Fiona Farrell’s prose.

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Janet Hart

Janet Hart lives in Nelson, where she taught English in secondary schools for nearly 30 years, before dabbling in a little historical New Zealand Art. In 2012 she took up Magazine Journalism, which now consumes her.