The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr (Freemantle Press, 2017), 340 pp., $37
Tracy Farr the New Zealand novelist is not to be confused with Tracey Farr, unpublished American poet, but New Zealand-based Tracey Farr, it seems to me, is a better poet than she is a novelist. The narrative of her second novel, The Hope Fault, is enhanced by love poems and lyrical passages about passion, science and nature. It did not come as a surprise to learn that Tracy Farr used to write songs.
The action in The Hope Fault takes place over a weekend gathering at a family holiday home that has just been sold. Stored in the house are the possessions of Rosa, the silent and apparently senile matriarch who lives in a rest home. Her middle-aged daughter Iris presides, or rather worries over everything and everyone at the house: her former husband Paul, his young wife, their unnamed baby, her son Kurt and niece Luce. With her constant fretting and tea-making, the reader soon realises that Iris is no common-or-garden martyr.
Empathising with the willingly put-upon Iris, the smug Paul, the vacuous Kristin, the depressive Kurt (aptly named after Kurt Cobain), the bad-tempered Luce and her boozy mother Marti, is not easy; in fact it is impossible. But there is something about this group of emotionally adrift people that draws one in. The act of reading the novel felt a lot like staying in a bach with a family of strangers over a rainy long weekend – and choosing to stay out of a masochistic desire to see how everything turns out. Initially, I expected a murder, or a suicide at the very least.
The most engaging part of the novel is the middle section in which matriarch Rosa looks back through her long eventful life. It includes a passionate encounter in London, a career as a photographer, a marriage of convenience to a dull and unattractive man, an ongoing affair, and pretty average parenting. Interlocuting her narrative are passionate letters and poems from her lover Zigi, and predictably prosaic postcards from her daughter. It is uncertain whether Iris has uncovered these artefacts as she sorts through her mother’s belongings, or whether they remain firmly in Rosa’s memory. Either way, Zigi’s poetry demonstrates his love of nature and words, while Iris’s matter-of-fact postcards reveal, unlike her enigmatic mother, a lack of imagination and inner life.
Rosa’s narrative travels backwards, beginning with her voiceless dotage and frayed relationship with her daughter and only child until it reaches the moment of her birth one hundred years earlier. In this respect it’s a bit like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or Tristram Shandy in reverse. The difference is that Rosa’s memories are set down as facts and artefacts (poems, postcards and letters); her life story is fascinating but her delivery is deadpan, and is neither enlightening nor funny. And too many questions go unanswered. Why, for instance, did she not join Zigi after her husband’s death? What Rosa’s thoughts do reveal, however, is sadness for her selfless daughter, who is loving but ultimately unlovable.
Along with Zigi’s poems to his muse, the novel’s beautiful moments are also found in Rosa’s ‘faery tales’. A talented writer as well as a photographer, Rosa becomes something of a celebrity in her youth as the author of original fairy stories with very grown-up themes. Her legacy is taken up by her artistic grandson, Kurt, who plans to turn the tales into a graphic novel. But if Rosa’s stories are subtexts for bigger truths, they become lost in the family’s commonplace interactions and the novel’s lack of psychological insight. In The Hope Fault, the past is a much more interesting place than the present.
Further questions dog the reader. After being initially enraged, what process did Iris go through to forgive her husband’s affair with a student, and to accept the much younger woman as a kind of junior wife? Why does Kristin accept this role passively? Does Iris secretly hate her and the baby, and why does Luce not pass on the crucial messages from the rest home? The flaws in the storyline are not that these questions go unanswered, but that the lack of character development makes the events and the characters’ decisions inexplicable to the point where one does not care.
If the purpose of the novel is to show us how not to live, as Henry James proposes, then this novel succeeds to a degree. When flawed characters are drawn intricately and sympathetically we understand their motivations as they find their way, rightly or wrongly, through the dilemmas that beset them. I was unable to do this with The Hope Fault. Perhaps it is because the family exchanges, which are described in great detail, do not reveal emotion. Is this a family that doesn’t have normal feelings of anger and hurt, or even irritation? Can they not recognise and convey those feelings, or is the narrator unable or unwilling to do it for them? Is it up to the reader to guess how this group of people can possibly get along with each other?
The only characters who do reveal an emotional life are Zigi, through his love letters and poetry, and Kurt, through his troubled relationship with The Girl, a mystery that remains just that. The book’s back cover promises that the family’s secrets ‘and the complex, messy nature of family relationships’ will be revealed. The relationships are certainly messy, and tension builds as the family is confined to the house, but the novel does not deliver on the promise of revelations.
The extended geology metaphor is an effective mechanism to construct the narrative and lock the stories together. Paul’s surname is Diamond, and Iris’s maiden name is Golden. Zigi’s poetry combines the beauty of the natural world with the body of his lover. The Hope Fault, a geological phenomenon that Zigi is studying, perhaps symbolises Iris’s apparent determination to create a happy future for her wider family in the face of emotional emptiness. But other metaphors come as thick and fast as the rain that is falling outside. Iris sets about embroidering a blanket for the baby, which starts as a blank canvas and is gradually filled with stitched signs and symbols as the weekend progresses. This additional metaphor is not necessary; Iris’s handiwork only adds to her martyrdom, and ‘finding work where there is none’, as her mother would say.
Farr received three residencies and a Creative New Zealand grant to complete this novel, so it is relevant to mention how far New Zealand has come since the early days of state literary sponsorship. This was a time when government policy to assist writers was driven by a postcolonial desire to establish a specific kind of nationalist literature. As Stuart Murray attests, the majority of grant recipients were men whose work was evaluated on its capacity to create a suitably masculinist literary canon. With its feminist consciousness and family themes, The Hope Fault looks very different to these earlier works, but has the ‘interpenetration’ of art and the state really changed that much since the 1930s? Have nationalistic drivers merely been replaced by neo-liberal ones, in which literature is supported by government as a creative export industry instead of an art form in its own right?
A function of Creative New Zealand literary grants is to help authors focus exclusively on their craft, but does this result in better fiction – or just more fiction? If literary grants did not exist, would New Zealand’s literary culture be the better or worse for it? The Hope Fault is a novel that opens up these questions because it is neither terrible nor great. It was difficult to judge whether it is good or bad, because it is both good and bad. It is beautifully written in many parts, but the characters and storyline do not do justice to the poetics. While the characters are unlikeable, they do linger in the mind after reading the final page, rather like being able to remember the class bully long after leaving school. Unlikeable characters can also be captivating, but The Hope Fault does not achieve this. I would love to read more of Tracy Farr’s poetry though.
PATRICIA McLEAN is a freelance writer and editor based in Dunedin. Her PhD from Victoria University was on constructions of masculinity in the novels of Maurice Gee. She formerly taught academic writing at Victoria and Massey Universities, and currently blogs at www.waxeyewriting.com/Blog.