I have enjoyed a number of Fiona Farrell’s novels over the last few years. This latest is operating on a number of levels and I love the way this novel is playing with the readers.
Take the title for example. You would assume that a New Zealand novel called The Deck would be all about that low wooden platform attached to the back (or the front) of a house. And on one level you’d be right, because there is indeed a very large modern house with a wonderful deck overlooking a remote bay from the back of the dunes. All architect designed with sleeping pods for guests and indoor-outdoor flow. But The Deck is also referring to something quite different, because this book takes its shape and inspiration from The Decameron by Boccaccio, written in the 1350s. Although I own a copy, I confess it has languished unread on my shelves for, well, let’s just say decades. But what I had failed to notice is how relevant it has become for modern times, because in it a group of friends flee the city of Florence, which is being ravaged by plague – the Black Death no less. They move to a remote spot in the country, where they pass the time telling each other stories. The fourteenth-century version of Netflix and working from home. Seven young women and three young men each tell a story every day for ten days. Each day there is a short introduction, framing the tales and Farrell uses the same device at the start. It is even called The Frame and in it, the writer addresses the reader directly. The parallels of plague and COVID are obvious. The emptying of New Zealand as the tourists stop arriving is echoed loud and clear:
“First there was the silence. The country shut down and silence fell. The CBDs emptied as workers retreated to work from home. The motorways emptied, and the airports where planes had roared in, bringing the tourists to see the tree in the lake, the chapel in the carpark, the casino with the pokies, the hotel room with the view of the mountains, and the bridge where it was possible to catch a curated glimpse of your own death from the end of a rubber bungy. The ports emptied where the cruise ships had disgorged thousands onto the streets to buy jade carved into the shapes of kiwi and koru. They had bought woollen socks and were taken on the buses to see a sheep being shorn and a cathedral that had fallen down in an earthquake and a vineyard where they could buy pinot noir and sauvignon.”
I love the irony of this quote, because it echoes the lack of things to come and see and the emptiness of when no one is here looking at these same few things. Farrell continues:
“The novelist has read the tales with their cast of lusty young wives and rampant young men, their randy monks and roaming merchants with their ships and fluctuating fortunes, their princesses in disguise, their weird and brutal sexual politics. But in this era of contact tracing and genome sequencing, quarantine facilities and graphs of mortality, it is not the fiction that absorbs her, but the prologue.”
And then goes on in some detail to describe what Boccaccio was doing with his stories. She sums it up beautifully in a line; “It’s the sound of modern fiction taking root in the trenches of 1348.”
What follows are ten tales woven into the description of six days by the sea. Friends and acquaintances gather at the architectural coastal bach, escaping the plague. They are both friends and family, all bringing their own backstory. They are heading to Philippa’s remote house because she has to escape her home in the city, designed by her architect husband Tom. She describes her city apartment like this:
“Because the alternative is the apartment. Tom’s Tower. Long-listed at the time of construction for the Rosenberg Award, with its ten apartments, theirs the topmost, a masterpiece, the citation said, of sustainable design with its views across the plains to the distant rim of mountains. She really cannot bear the thought of it. Day after day enclosed in that apartment with its perfectly curated view, that interior perfection, that innovative technology that so impressed the judges and reduces all external sound, the sound of life being lived out there in the city, to a buzzing in her ears.”
Each of the following ten tales begins with the same phrase; “A tale of one who, after divers misadventures, at last attains a goal of unexpected felicity.” The wonder of the tales is that they all reveal something unexpected and they have consequences – sometimes things that have never been said before and probably should have been said in private and not revealed to a large group around the dinner table. This little description thumbnails those around the table on the deck. Maria, the cinematographer, pans her mental camera across the group:
There’s Philippa presiding from the head of the table, overseeing the direction of discussion, doing that annoying thing she has always done of taking responsibility for everyone’s happiness, keeping everything calm and sweet by batting away unpleasantness.
And Tom, poor desperate Tom, reduced from the star he used to be and now acting it instead, the jovial host, but no one can keep that up for ever and every so often the jolly old mask slips and there it is: despair. His eyes falter. He has no idea how to live this bit when he is no longer his job, when he is no longer the handsome prince, but portly and balding and frightened.
And Ani who is sweet and kind and glad to be alive, and Pete. And Didi, who is interesting, there’s a savagery in Didi. And her beautiful Zoe, in whom the future has yet to take shape. And right at the bottom of the table, on the edge and even quieter than usual, is Baz. His guitar has been laid aside, he seems restless and he refuses to meet her eye. And when she sees him glance over at her then look away, she feels, for the first time in her life, shame.”
This is a slow unfolding read that is well worth the journey. The rewards are rich as the tales of felicity unfold around the group and even their beachside paradise is threatened. The plague, the people, the location, and their stories all have a masterful selection of unsettling effects. This must be the best of all the COVID-inspired pieces yet to emerge from the world’s writers.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Vintage New Zealand