WORD Christchurch 2023: Three of our best: Fiction Three Ways with Fiona Farrell, Carl Nixon and Emily Perkins

Morrin Rout opened this engaging and entertaining event at The Piano with a plea:

Please support our Kiwi writers - it's vital to support New Zealand's huge and diverse talent...they can hit you here (touches her heart).

She's not wrong. Fiona Farrell, Emily Perkins and Carl Nixon are writers who can make you laugh, cry, think and relate.

Forrests, Waters, Decks - what do these authors have in common? Not only a strong element of atmosphere - storms, fog, rivers, oceans, gardens, but also a strong study of human nature. And architecture.

Fiona Farrell

Fiona Farrell's latest book, The Deck, modelled on Boccaccio's Decameron, is about catastrophe, and the way human beings deal with catastrophe. The Decameron was written in the fourteenth century, a response to the Bubonic Plague, while The Deck (a great play on words) is a response to the Covid pandemic, and lockdown. 

The Deck

Boccaccio's collection of tales are related by his wealthy characters, who drink, dance and tell stories each afternoon in their retreat from the city of Florence. Farrell's setting resembles her previous home of Ōkārito, on the West Coast. For Farrell, the essence of the story was in answer to the question,

What can fiction offer in the face of disaster? How do you write, when the world is falling to pieces?

By this she means climate change, as well as pandemics. She reads an excerpt from The Deck, in which an air disaster is barely averted: two passengers seek comfort and escapism in books. Fiction, asserts Farrell, helps us to imagine a future. Reading is akin to the 'pause' we all felt during lockdown - filled with the sound of birds and bees instead of traffic. 

Carl Nixon

Carl Nixon's latest book, The Waters, is a dream-like reverie; a collection of cleverly arranged stories that unify into a novel about the members of a Christchurch family. They work, and have been published, in isolation. Gathered together, the observations of the rise and fall of the family are like flotsam along the tideline. 

The Waters

The Waters' lives are never the same after their father Pat sells their farm in Governor's Bay and invests everything in a housing development in North New Brighton.

Uprooted, sons Mark and Davey are forced to change schools, settle in a rickety 'new' house, and struggle for even the basics in life - food, warmth, parental love and protection from the evils that threaten children. But some things have been brought with them - their mother's depression, and their father's alcoholism, violent nature, and philandering.

Pat's anger has left its legacy in different ways. Mark is quick to explode and the first to challenge others. Davey withdraws into drugs. Marika, their mother, suffers post-natal depression: she's unable to love her children by feeding them and caring for their needs.

Written in a fragmentary way, Nixon's book reveals bits of the family's lives. Gradually, the big questions are answered - what happened to the development, what happened to mum, what happened to Davey, and how Mark's eye was damaged. Readers don't just hear from the main characters, there are chapters from their friends, neighbours, the babysitter, the other woman and random strangers share observations upon meeting them.

Morrin Rout said at the launch of this book, she wanted to gather up these boys and protect them. I felt the same. You can't shelter your children from life - but you can protect them from yourself. 

Like all of us, even Pat has a redeeming feature: he loves his boys enough to protect them from the paedophile next door. Is that enough?

Nixon's books are character studies: of people, familial relationships, and how they might respond to unusual circumstances.  

The problem with Davey is he always felt everything strongly. Feelings can erode you, wear you away like a beach after a series of storms. By Christmas my brother seemed to me even smaller and skinnier than ever. There was a blue vein running across his forehead just beneath his skin that I didn't remember from our other, now half-forgotten life.

Nixon reads from the chapter Five Girls, a Woman, and a Place Name - a riff on a Dan Davin title - an excerpt that illustrates how Davey, the heartbreaker, exhibits traits of his philandering father. But perhaps watered down.

Barring his own Rocking Horse Road, there hasn't been much written that reflects life in New Brighton since Bruce Ansley's Gods and Little Fishes

Emily Perkins

Emily Perkins' latest offering, Lioness, is about change, she says, and obstacles to change. Perkins work seeks an answer to the question; 'Why is it so hard for people to change their lives?'


Lioness pivots on the transformative possibilities of tension caused by developer Trevor being charged with fraud and how his wife Therese reacts to it. The risk of losing their carefully orchestrated life of privilege, and her carefully constructed (by Trevor) persona; as perfect as the homeware ideals she sells, is exhilarating.

My life seemed trivial compared to his...I played the blank slate, which no girl is. ...I was a girl without opinions.

As their fair-weather friends desert in droves, Therese is drawn towards the possibilities offered by her carefree and rebellious neighbour, Claire. Claire, described as 'scrappy and worn, but vital' is the opposite of spoiled, over-privileged and infuriating, Therese, who lives 'an artfully imperfect life', is all about image and being the perfect hostess.

Perkins read an excerpt from Lioness in which Therese partakes in her first bacchanal with Claire, where, due to a double booking, she shares the experience with her husband's uptight daughter Caroline. The compromise? They all get drunk and smoke pot. Lol. It's hilarious as the other women tell their pregnant friend that those who told her childbirth wouldn't hurt are 'f...kn liars...' Lioness, like Perkins' other works, is a novel of consumption - how human lives are consumed by time and circumstance. Her shop sells 'the fantasy of time to read poetry and handwrite letters to women who scrambled to make it through the day without braining themselves on a desktop paper spike..'

Perkins' observations of humanity are astute and funny. Her use of language is, frankly, gifted. Constructions such as "I wanted to give him (the pilot) my body in gratitude' referring to a perilous landing in Wellington, with its 'one-scoop harbour' and her description of following a gang of bikers, 'I drove on into the air they had parted' made me keen to read more of her work.

A wonderful panel. 


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