No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

#58: Mr Allbones' Ferretts -- Fiona Farrell

The smell of violets is overpowering.
How could he have missed it, and the port, the cigars, the oil of Macassar? The stink of wealth is as strong as the markings of fox or cat. As strong as the musky stink of the badger sett that has been here for as long as Allbones can remember, and a hundred years or more before him no doubt ... (p.26)

Subtitled 'An historical pastoral satirical scientifical romance, with mustelids', this novel is based on scant facts from historical documents: in 1885 Mr Riddiford, a landholder in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand, ordered a consignment of nearly four hundred stoats from England to help control the burgeoning rabbit population. Mr Allbones and Mr Metcalfe collected them and endured the four-month voyage to deliver them to Riddiford.

Farrell, an acclaimed New Zealand novelist whose word I hadn't previously encountered, tells a story considerably more complex than the facts would suggest. Mr Allbones is not precisely what he seems: nor is Eugenia, the granddaughter of the local squire, obsessed with Darwin and natural philosophy.

I bought this book in Auckland Airport, wanting a little more of New Zealand when I left (though reeling at the price of a new paperback novel: NZ$31, or about £12): so I was initially disappointed by the realisation that most of the novel is set in rural England and on board the Adam and Eve, and that Allbones and Metcalfe and their associates are dyed-in-the-wool English peasants. But there is a New Zealand sensibility to the novel, which looks askance at the colonists' cavalier treatment of their new country's ecology, and contrasts Allbones' experience of the rich, centuries-deep traditions of English life with the untouched world he expects to find.

I also learnt a great deal about ferrets, stoats and weasels. And a new word: merrythought.

Farrell's writing is gloriously sensual -- there are some vividly gruesome scenes (nature red in tooth and claw) and an unsentimental depiction of cottage life in the 19th century. The novel is permeated with smell: not literally, though there were times when I imagined I caught the sharp odour of animals, but Allbones lives by his nose, and his sense of smell is far sharper than, I suspect, any modern city-dweller's.

I wasn't wholly happy with the obliqueness of the ending, and I would have loved to read more: but the story stopped in the right place for the characters, and the new life that some of them are set to enter is a different tale.

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