Review: Bad Archive, by Flora Feltham

Reviewed by Becs Tetley

'Feltham’s debut collection, Bad Archive, features thirteen intricate essays that explore the space between what remains and what happened. ‘How do you plunge your eyes and hands into the world around you?’ she wonders.'

Flora Feltham is a bad archivist. But that’s not to say she’s bad at her job as an archivist looking after some of New Zealand’s most prestigious collections—rather, Feltham is so curious about the evidence she preserves that she admits to feeling a ‘gravitational pull’ into the gaps between artifact and meaning. A train ticket can tell us that a person travelled from A to B, but what was the comfort food they turned to when unwell? Who did they long for in quiet moments?

Feltham’s debut collection, Bad Archive, features thirteen intricate essays that explore the space between what remains and what happened. ‘How do you plunge your eyes and hands into the world around you?’ she wonders.

Archival matter is swirling all around her – in diaries kept since she was six, family photos plastered across her mum’s fridge, and therapy sessions with her husband as they tackle infidelity and substance abuse. It’s also pets buried in the garden, cloth woven on a loom, seagulls divebombing into landfills, and text messages with Croatian drug dealers.

She’s desperate to use the evidence available to make sense of her own life and those who came before. She admits ‘...the more you look at something…the more it starts to change shape and bleed into its surroundings.’

In the opening essay ‘On Archiving’, Feltham is researching the diaries of sixteen-year-old Ella, whose father has sent her to London in 1893 to forget about Harry, a bricklayer she loves in Christchurch. While Feltham wraps Ella’s journals in carefully measured acid-free paper, she wishes she could transcend 130 years and tell Ella about ‘…a cat show in Kilbirnie’ or the policy analyst at work who is a ‘sexy Glaswegian like her Harry.’

In ‘Proust Yourself’, Feltham tries to access teenage memories from when her mother was admitted to a psychiatric facility. Upon learning that Proust once ate a madeleine cake that jogged his recollections, vegetarian Feltham nibbles on a meat pie hoping this childhood snack will spark insight. When that doesn’t work, she asks her brothers what they remember, but they come up empty as well. Sometimes the gaps in memory can be the story itself.

Feltham’s infectious curiosity pulled me into worlds I’d never thought to venture to. We sit on her shoulder as she attends a sex-ed workshop for romance writers. We rub up against sweaty bodies at a European dance party. She even had me rooting for the slimy inhabitants of her worm farm.

Through her research and ponderings, many of Feltham’s essays unearth the hidden stories of women who’ve found themselves at ‘the empty centre of the doughnut around which the squishy dough of fathers, husbands and sons swelled.’

In ‘A Portrait of My Mother’, we meet Feltham’s mum who insists her children call her by her first name, Vicky. She is the kind of woman who picks up spiders with her bare hands and had to leave a party once because she ‘threw all the empty champagne glasses into the fireplace.’

In ‘My Mother’s Daughters’, Feltham is haunted by an older sister named Charlotte who died in infancy before the author’s birth. When asked if she has a sister, Feltham says no but admits to the reader, ‘My sister is the tiny friction in an answer, the crunch of statement against reality. I don’t have a sister but I’m not my mother’s first daughter.’

Bad Archive seeks answers to questions we all have: What does it mean to make sense of our lives? What are the fragments we use to cobble together our stories? Maybe our birthday cards will one day be preserved in a library. Or our voice memos dissected and categorised by date and theme. Or perhaps, as Feltham so beautifully illustrates, it is in the spaces between the things we leave behind where the real story exists.

Reviewed by Becs Tetley

Becs Tetley is a nonfiction writer and editor based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her personal essays have appeared in The Spinoff, Turbine | Kapohau, Headland, Folly Journal, and elsewhere. She can be found on social media: @BecsTetley.