Tracy Farr grew up in Australia and has lived in New Zealand since 1996, which I think qualifies her for inclusion on a New Zealand book blog. Farr’s novel is infused with reflections on both countries. The main character, Lena, or Dame Helena if we’re being official, reflects on her life, and the cities she has lived in: Perth, Sydney, Dunedin and Singapore, to name a few. As Lena moves from city to city, country to country, we learn of Lena’s love of music which starts with humming into a comb wrapped with tissue paper, to the cello, to learning the instrument in which she makes a name for herself - the Theremin. The electrical instrument signifies modernity, and that Lena is a thoroughly modern woman.
The novel doesn’t have a plot as such, rather it re-tells episodes from Lena’s life as she reflects on her experiences. At the beginning of the narrative a documentary film maker asks Lena to share her stories. While Lena has encountered some fame for her musical abilities throughout her life, she is now a pensioner whose fame is now a memory, memories that the filmmaker is keen to capture. Interspersed between the scenes set in the present, are reflections and memories of the past. Initially, I thought that Lena’s reflections are the stories she is telling to the filmmaker because the memories are ‘told’ more than they are ‘described.’ By ‘told’ I mean more ‘tell’ than description. I got this impression because the sentence length in most of the narrative is long, which, to me, indicates speech, a lingering story, spliced with commas, and semi-colons. But, Lena’s reflections aren’t told to the filmmaker; instead they end up being episodes that she has written about herself. This made me question the point of having the framing device of the filmmaker if it isn’t the filmmaker that Lena is telling her life story to.
However, the intrusion of the filmmaker into Lena’s life initiates her reflections, and it also brings up a conversation about memory, about truth and invention. Mo, the filmmaker, asks Lena to try to tell her story in a new way, to make the old stories feel new by not relating them in the same way she always has. Instead, Mo wants Lena to improvise, to make it fresh in order to acknowledge both invention and reality in memory. Lena says that she will try, but I got a greater sense that Lena was choosing what to reveal rather than inventing elements of story. Throughout the novel there are pieces of information that Lena is keeping to herself, which for the reader is a little frustrating but it also shows that you can only ever know something about someone if they choose to reveal it. To emphasise the metafictional qualities of the text, Mo also says that the final film will reveal as much about her as it will Lena. In filming Lena, Mo is also revealing herself.
While the predominant theme is memory, sexuality is also dwelt on in the novel. Lena has several love affairs with men and women, but the most significant relationship is with Beatrix, an artist and ‘new woman’ of the 1920s. Farr uses the analogy of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is being built when Lena arrives in the city, to show the increasing physical and emotional closeness of the women. The two ends of the bridge don’t connect when Lena and Beatrix first meet, but they do eventually, and the pair, along with the rest of the city, walks across it. This joining signifies their physically relationship, I think, but it certainly isn’t a point that is lingered on, which is strange given that Lena is 18 at the time and there hasn’t been a hint of any other sexual activity. I would’ve thought it would be a big deal, in more ways than one, that could have been lingered on a little more explicitly. Not doing so relates to Lena’s keeping some things to herself but I just don’t think keeping everything to herself works in a novel.
While I do have a few reservations about the framing device in the novel, the book also offers a perspective on Lena’s life lived through two World Wars and extending through to the 1990s. We learn about the personal challenges in Lena’s life however, societal conformities about sexuality and gender roles are held at a distance. A strength in the novel is Farr’s descriptions and obvious love of the ocean, and the scenes with musical instruments were delightful. Farr’s novel has been long listed for the 2014 Miles Franklin literary award.