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 Lena Gaunt
A novel by Tracy Farr
Published by Freemantle Press, September 2013
RRP $NZ 35.00

This 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 true.  
                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 father transcribed.
                How 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
                Back 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. 
                This is 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.    


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