Big Fiction

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7 October, Havelock North Function Centre
Readers and Writers, HBAF 2017

On what chair Toby Buck even charitably described as a “sub sub-tropical” Saturday evening in Havelock North (it was miserable), around four dozen hardy souls came out to the Function Centre’s strictly functional Magdalinos Room for discussions about Coming Waves and The Wish Child with their respective authors Stephen Daisley and Catherine Chidgey. With a title like BIG Fiction, I must admit I was expecting maybe some drawing-out of the authors’ philosophies on the current state of fiction (and even with the definitions of fiction in relation to those of fact or truth) in this very interesting time of unexpected sleights of, um, word. I was quickly disabused of this expectation, as the audience was playfully (but also quite sincerely) warned by the lovely and stubbly MC, Ali Beal, that there be “…no PhD thesis-type questions, please” during upcoming question time. This probably turned out for the best. I’d just driven five hours back from Wellington (interminable but picturesque detour at Gorge) to make it here on time, and I was shattered. I mostly wanted to be read to by these hugely talented writers, and yes, that’s pretty much what happened.

Stephen Daisley’s prose is associative and rambling, just like being regaled by a half-cut rousie, a season of shifts covered in a handful of details. It’s a ruddy, irreverent Australian Bildungsroman as a rambling monologue constantly shuttling back and forth in time. Daisley even reads with a kind of halting unfamiliarity as if this book on his lap was written by someone else, which gave it a remarkable sense of authenticity and immediacy.

Catherine Chidgey’s writing is more composed, stately, European. She has such an acquisitive eye for telling, softly sinister detail that over even the course of a page, the child’s world begins to teem like a Wunderkammer. 

When questioned by Toby Buck about the development of her work, Chidgey reveals what an imaginative researcher she is, seizing on the vivid image of an avuncular Hitler rewarding the bravery of little German boys and girls with marzipan, and how that might be a model for the way in which to think about a child’s experience of war.

The highlight was Chidgey’s reading of a German school teacher’s instructions to her charges during a (softly sinister) school visit to a biscuit factory. This passage was a piece of comic and satiric genius. The author completely inhabits this officious party-faithful matron, who is so reassuringly informative and nurturing, such an affable ideologue – Chidgey renders her voice perfectly and in doing exposes the various absurdities, vanities and ironies that structure the apparatuses of power. Now that’s what I call BIG fiction.

I want to read her book.

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