Aftershock: Fiona Farrell's white-hot response to the Christchurch earthquake
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire
Fiona Farrell, Vintage, $40
A book written with an angry mind, a philosophical spirit and a wise and forgiving heart, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire is fiendishly difficult to classify.
Part autobiography, part polemic and part discourse on history and nature, it is a response not only to Christchurch's lethal earthquake of 2011, but also to the very flawed way in which the city is being reconstructed and rebuilt.
Fiona Farrell has been a Christchurch resident for more than 20 years, and she has often expressed her love for the city. As well as revelling in her writing cottage out of town, she came to enjoy the neighbourly suburbs near the city centre that had a strong sense of community.
Came the earthquake, and everything changed. There were the 185 dead, the 100,000 damaged houses, and the 25,000 that had to be demolished. But there were now also CERA and a new bunch of central government authorities under Gerry Brownlee, which took the city over from local authorities. With them, they brought their neo-liberal philosophy. What was good for business or for private enterprise (property developers, demolition and construction firms) was good for the city. The traditional needs of residents had lower priority.
Taking the Avon Loop neighbourhood as her example, Fiona Farrell argues that Red Zoning has often functioned as a form of land grab by developers. They wanted to change the social nature of the area by creating expensive riverside residences beyond the reach of the socio-economic group who lived in "the Loop" pre-earthquake.
Parts of the book are white-hot expose, with Farrell showing the delaying tactics of insurance companies, whose aim was to pay out as little as possible to desperate householders in order to preserve their profits. She also indicts the "consolidation" of Christchurch schools as further evidence of communities broken up in the name of profit.
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire would be a powerful book if a critique of the Christchurch re-build was Farrell's only concern. But it isn't. Farrell gives Christchurch an historical context. Some passages set it in the deep past of geological formation. Others (often of great lyrical beauty) expand on its indigenous flora and fauna, not to mention the slightly dotty English origins of the city itself.
Most provocatively, Farrell places the Christchurch experience in the global context. Sixty of its 350-odd pages draw a comparison with the small Italian city of l'Aquila, whose authorities took a radically different approach from CERA to rebuilding after a major 2009 'quake. In l'Aquila, the aim was the preservation of the existing community, not "development".
The book's title refers to an ancient Roman villa, which Farrell once saw on an archaeological dig in England. It was built in the chilly, rainy English climate, but was totally Roman and Mediterranean in construction. It becomes for Farrell a symbol of the way empires often impose their values on their furthest outposts. Like the British imperialism that built Christchurch. Like the corporate neo-liberalism that is now defacing it.
This book is not Fiona Farrell's first response to Christchurch's great tragedy. In 2011, she produced The Broken Book, which also reflected on the 'quake. An endnote to The Villa at the Edge of the Empire says that it is the first, non-fiction part of a two-part project, the second volume of which will be fiction.
Like this one, it should be a must-read.