The Villa at the End of the Empire: Fiona Farrell


I first read this book last August before it was shortlisted for the non-fiction category at the New Zealand Book Awards. The Ockhams (as they are now called) are handed out at the Auckland Writers Festival.

I am still not sure how to do justice to Fiona Farrell’s excellent book in a short review. Immensely enjoyable for so many reasons, it was born out of the pain, suffering and displacement of the Christchurch earthquakes and the subsequent “recovery”. It is too easy to think that the problems Christchurch is struggling with are over or by any means sorted. It is just that they no longer make the national news.

What Fiona Farrell’s book does is to tell us stories about Christchurch, from its early foundations to its future plans, juxtaposing some of her own experiences, and those of her friends, alongside the wider developments and redevelopments. It is gritty and honest and although the book doesn’t take sides, you as the reader will do, when faced with bare facts shorn of any Government spin.

Farrell also takes us on a trip to L’Aquila in Italy, another city laid low by the shaking earth. A smaller city, but in one night during 2009, 65,000 people out of a population of 72,000 were made homeless. In Italy company directors who are seen making profits from the disaster are serving four-year jail terms, while in New Zealand and Australia the insurance giants are growing their profits. In Italy the old parts of their city are being rebuilt exactly as they were before the disaster. Farrell does not comment, merely places the facts alongside each other for us to make up our own minds.

The book is sub-titled “One hundred ways to read a city” and it is divided into one hundred short chapters that range through time and place. From the pre-European landscape of Canterbury to classical Italy where I learnt that the city of Pompeii was still patching itself up from an earthquake fifteen years before it was buried in lava. I read stories of Cantabrians living in garages with all their belongings, or even in cars as the insurance living allowance ran out in a city where rents are sky-high. I learnt things through many an interesting aside, like how to comprehend the difference between a million and a billion. Put it in minutes and then seconds. A million seconds is 12 days, but a billion is 32 years. When we hear how much the rebuilding will cost, it is important to know how much bigger a billion is.

I was impressed how The Villa at the Edge of the Empire tackled both large and small topics so easily. We swap from the British Empire to more modern empires developed by America and China, travel through works by Seneca and on to Charles Darwin’s last book, all about earth worms. We consider the work of the Victorian town planners and the waters that now bubble under people’s houses. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and there will be a second one next year containing fictional stories to set against the non-fiction in this volume. No, it didn’t win the Ockhams but is still excellent and immensely enjoyable.

Photo0586Marcus Hobson is the ARTbop Literary Editor, regular book reviewer, writer, and Secretary of the Tauranga Writers group Marcus has been, and continues to be, lots of things. An aspiring author of both novels and reviews, he has always said he wants to be a writer and 40 years later is making that come true. He has in the past done such varied things as study ancient and mediaeval history at Uni in London, worked as an archaeologist, as an economist in central and southern Africa, and as truck driver in a quarry. About two years ago he relocated to the beautiful Bay from a finance job in Auckland. He is a lover of art, the written word and a full-time fanatical book collector, with over 3,000 volumes on his shelves. He lives close to Katikati with his wife and sometimes their three daughters, two cats, a library and the odd chicken. Marcus is currently working on a “factional” work about World War One.

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