Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Monday, August 19, 2013
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt - A novel by Tracy Farr - Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith
The Life and Loves of
A novel by Tracy Farr
Published by Freemantle Press, September 2013
RRP $NZ 35.00
is a debut novel from a very fine writer.
I recalled her name in association with the Katherine Mansfield Awards
and I was right. She was runner-up in
2001 with her story ‘The Blind Astronomer’.
She’s also been published in ‘Turbine’, ‘Sport’, ‘The Best NZ Fiction’
Volume 3, and other short story collections, as well as Radio New Zealand.
Who is Lena Gaunt? Lena
Gaunt is a musician who comes to fame playing the theremin. If like me, you’ve never heard of this
instrument, will be intrigued to learn about this unusual electronic
instrument, invented by the Russian Professor Leon Theremin, in the 1920’s.
It was originally known as an aetherphone. The instrument works via antennae and is
played without any physical contact from the musician. And, as you can nowadays, I managed to find
examples of this instrument being played on you-tube. Whereas, when searching on the internet for
Lena Gaunt, there is no trace of her except that she exists within this
novel. It just goes to show what a good
job Farr has done – I believed in Lena.
I still do, and she lingers with me.
We meet Lena as an Octogenarian,
looking back on her life, having recently played the theremin by invitation, at
a contemporary festival celebrating eclectic electronic music. As a result of her performance, a film-maker
has contacted her wanting to make a documentary of her life. Thus we weave back and forth in Lena’s
memories, chapter by chapter as her life unfolds both in memory and in relation
to the documentary film maker.
The novel is episodic. It is a fictional biography. The chapters are quite short. It is in the small vignettes that this novel
really sings. It is not a page turner. It’s
like inhabiting a life, and I thoroughly enjoyed inhabiting the life of
Lena. I still, sort of, want her to be
In her early childhood in
Singapore, Lena’s life changes when she almost drowns and contracts a
fever. She sleeps in her mother’s bedroom
while recuperating and recalls the “symphony of the dressing table” the sound
of the hairbrush, the sound of her mother’s rings that “sang gold and silver
against the china tray she dropped them onto”. Farr manages to bring both a
technical and emotional depth to her writing about music. There’s also a very moving short chapter
about Lena’s childhood pet monkey. Farr
has a gift for creating very potent images.
Further on in the novel, there is a ‘python in the fowl house’ – in
these scenes, the writing excels.
Due to her near drowning, it’s discovered Lena
has a leaky heart valve and she is shipped out to Freemantle for the good of
her health. She is now alone at the age of four at boarding school. It seems extraordinary but believable and too
it is here we are introduced to the very likeable character, Uncle Valentine,
her guardian. Her relationship with her
parents is now conducted via letters.
Lena survives boarding school through music.
She learns to play the piano and when she visits her Uncle she listens
to his gramophone and on one such occasion falls in love with the sound of the
cello. Her Uncle buys her a cello. Near the end of her schooling, a letter
arrives from her father advising her mother has died. Lena and her Uncle Valentine return to be
with Lena’s father who is now living in Malacca.
The return to Malacca is rich with images of
the time including a delicious detail as they sail in a truck on a railway line
over the salt flats to Carnarvon railway station (a coastal town 900 kilometres
from Perth) before setting sail on sea. Their
arrival by ship at Bali is recaptured with the sound of the Gamelan, the sight
of flying fish. Farr thanks her great-grandfather
in the acknowledgements, for his detailed account of such a journey, which her
Lena ends up leaving Malacca is again an exceedingly well drawn episode
reflecting cultural and social conventions of the time. It is this aspect of the novel I think that
really hums, the character inhabiting specific places at a particular time in
history with such vivid detail. Her
eventual return to Australia is memorable as she sails into Sydney and the
harbour bridge is being built – the two sides not yet joining. The bridge becomes a motif in her life and I
found this very poignant, both in regard to the characters and the city
and forth we go. We inhabit bohemian
Sydney with Lena as she discovers the theremin, falls in love and her musical
career soars. Sydney in the thirties is
evoked in splendid decadent detail. The
harbour bridge is almost a character. Lena
finds both glittering fame and unconventional love. For a few short years, she lives in conservative
1930’s Dunedin, New Zealand.
Water, the beach, swimming and music are constant themes
throughout the novel. When Lena returns
to Australia, a beautiful friendship occurs with a childless couple who take
her in. This is during a backdrop of the
Second World War. It is a sad chapter
in Lena’s life. Too, as the novel progresses, Lena becomes
dependent on opiates and after the war ends, she spends time in Paris trying to
resurrect her career, and then St Ives, in England. Oh, it’s a rich geographic tapestry indeed.
a meditative story, and I felt safe in the hands of a fine writer. I think as it progressed, the novel did
suffer a little from lack of narrative drive which might frustrate some readers
but for me this was more than made up for by the quality of the writing and my
interest in Lena, her life, and the people she loves. Farr made me believe. Isn’t that what good fiction is supposed to
do? I think Lena’s life would make a
terrific movie. So many interesting
locations, people, and quietly dramatic moments that would work well on the
screen. About the reviewer:
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.