Decline & Fall on Savage Street, by Fiona Farrell

The story begins in 1901 and concludes in the winter of 2012. At its centre is a house with a fanciful little turret, built by a river in Christchurch. Over time the land will be subdivided and the single building becomes home to a succession of assorted people enduring the twists and turns of history.

Decline & Fall on Savage Street is an incredibly interesting and breathtaking book. However, it was very hard to get in to to start with. It took me multiple attempts for me to really get stuck in. I became frustrated that as soon as I felt I knew a character…boom, they were relegated to history and it was on to the next one. But then, I fell in love with the house. The subtle, constant character that binds it all together.

Farrell follows the course of history, deftly weaving in war, economic collapse, protest, feminism, new technologies, music, art and racial renaissance in to the story. The house becomes a living monument to the mundane events of domestic life that morph into profound human experiences.

This book is designed as a companion to her non-fiction book, The Villa at the Edge of an Empire, skillfully juxtaposing fact and fiction across two volumes. They combine to examine one hundred years of tumultuous history.

Once I clicked as to what and where Farrell was trying to take the Savage Street story, I was hooked. Sure enough, the terrifying events of the Christchurch earthquakes play a significant part. As someone who was rocked and jolted by those very quakes it was a tough read and I’d advise others to be aware that it could be triggering to them. However, Farrell has done a beautiful, authentic re-telling of those quakes that is not overly dramatic or exaggerated.

Farrell’s immense talent is evident through Decline & Fall on Savage Street. Each chapter is a short story within itself. Farrell treats each story like a brick, or little pieces of timber, putting them together to make a book, much like Christchurch is attempting to do with the rebuild – salvaging pieces of its history to start again. It’s a clever, inspiring form of writing.

To add to the magic, Farrell has the story running across three different scales of time. While we watch people come and go, there is an ongoing story of the river and of the earth running through the book. Both tell a subtle tale of how insignificant we, as humans, really are.

This novel truely is a masterpiece. Farrell is a master storyteller and Decline & Fall on Savage Street is a testament to her skill. It is alluring, endlessly rewarding and a true literary jewel.

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TITLE: Decline & Fall on Savage Street
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House
RRP: $38.00
ISBN: 9780143770626

Rebekah is an Otago-based mother of two young girls. The former journalist and primary school teacher has a soft spot for New Zealand authors and young adult fiction. Follow her on Twitter.

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