This is much-awarded writer Fiona Farrell’s first work of fiction in six years. Her last novel was Decline and Fall on Savage Street (2017), a fictional companion to the nonfiction work The Villa at the Edge of the Empire (2015), both prompted by her responses to the Christchurch earthquakes, their aftermath and the city itself.
It’s not the first time that Farrell has drawn on the past to stimulate her writing. Artfully structured, and incorporating both fiction and non-fiction, The Deck is inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron (Il Decamerone), written in the fourteenth century. American novelist Jane Smiley borrowed the same structure for her 2007 novel Ten Days in the Hills, where the war in Iraq provides external tension.
Bracketed by a non-fiction opening – ‘The Frame’ (la cornice) – and ‘The Author’s Conclusion’ at the end, The Deck (a playful abbreviation of Decamaron?) spans six days and four nights. A group of friends and family spend time together – without internet access – at Philippa and Tom’s holiday house in the countryside, fleeing a plague that’s similar to the global Covid pandemic.
The concept of friends telling each other stories during a plague skilfully mirrors The Decameron, in which one hundred tales are told over ten days ‘beneath trees in the heat of the day’ by ten young Florentines – seven women and three men – who have fled the city to escape the bubonic plague (la pestilenza).
Although The Deck’s prologue and conclusion are non-fiction, both tap into the techniques of meta fiction and creative non-fiction to create extra layers of both self-awareness and distance. ‘The Frame’ contextualises Italy’s medieval plague with the modern-day plague being experienced by the ‘novelist’, who might or might not be Farrell. She embeds herself as a witness from the start:
The novelist is making a novel.
She is making it on an Apple Mac in a small room overlooking a small city
on an island in the southern end of a vast ocean.
With one exception, most of the fictional characters in The Deck appear to be in their early- to mid-seventies, like the author. They eat, drink, play music and, to entertain themselves, tell each other stories. Many of these stories relate to turning points or significant events in the lives of their younger selves. The characters look back with a mix of nostalgia, yearning, regret, shame or sadness. It’s clear that Farrell has much affection for her characters and their frailties and foibles. They are rendered not only with compassion but with a poet’s eye. In spare and often lyrical language, Farrell delves deep into the richly textured inner lives, memories and backstories of people fleeing destruction and pestilence who are reckoning with their pasts through the prism and wisdom of hindsight.
The evocative nature writing, the nuanced points of view, and the sharpness and clarity of the non-fiction wraparound sing the The Deck to vivid life. Flashes of wit and humour sparkle through the text. At Philippa’s wedding to Tom, we get Baz’s merciless inner judgment of the father of the bride:
The lump of fat and gristle, the former loose-head prop and provincial rep, current president of the local branch of Federated Farmers, the Nat, the Fascist whose sperm had somehow managed to infiltrate the formidable fortress that was Philippa’s mother and engender Philippa.
Ani, ‘small and bright, her hair pure white and curling like a dandelion’, and Philippa’s oldest friend and confidante, describes her transformative first meeting with her late husband Leo. Tom recalls himself as a young man, deer hunting with his ‘dickhead’ mate Gordie and sleeping outside a trampers’ hut: on a starry night he experiences a magical encounter with a beautiful young woman.
There she stood, a silhouette against a billion stars. Naked. She was smiling. Her teeth gleamed in the starlight. And then she . . . well, let’s just say it was the best night of Tom’s life, before or since.
His wife Philippa, a former judge and ‘a nice woman with grey hair nicely cut’, recounts a more poignant story. She and Tom, now a retired architect, were unable to conceive children of their own. They adopted Tash, who grew into a damaged teen delinquent, stealing Philippa’s credit card and vanishing to Brisbane, never to be seen again. In a shock revelation, Philippa confesses to Tom and her friends, that while working a holiday job at the end of her second year at law school, she gave birth to ‘Rosie’, whom she later gave away. A devastated Tom regards her five decades of secrecy about this defining moment in her life as a significant personal betrayal. But to Philippa, Rosie’s birth was ‘the most amazing night’ of her life.
Ani’s brother Pete is a singer who worked on cruise ships for years. Finally, he has met the One – Didi, a chef – now with him at the house. Pete tells the group about his experience performing a private nocturnal gig for two elderly passengers whom he serenaded, masked. In an unexpected twist, his singing of ‘True Love’ provided a launching pad for the couple to implement a fatal plan.
As he sang he could hear some whispering, some footsteps, a click, a little rush of air and then . . . nothing. He waited. Should he sing something else? Should he remove the mask? Not a word.
In ‘The Author’s Conclusion’ a year and a half has passed, and the ‘novelist’ has completed her book. ‘The novelist’s hands, cramped now . . . were just tiny pink paws, scratching in the undergrowth.’ Like a puppet master, she abandons ‘her paper dolls, walking along in their imaginary land’, to report on the outcome of the plague and the polarised world she now inhabits in which ‘fact itself is under fire’. When our new normal is weirder and more disturbing than fiction, how can ‘the novelist’ not call into question the value of making things up, ‘as the world outside the window is relentlessly destroying itself, one hamster, one fire, one war, one flood, one playground slide at a time’?
The Deck is a modern masterpiece of invention and curated facts by a writer at the height of her powers, a luminous intelligence and compassion shining forth from every page.