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Tracy Farr translate the world. Picture: William Yeoman

Sydney, circa 1930. Lena and her lover Trix are smoking opium. It's "diffusing through (their) minds and flowing outside and up through the hot air, to the docks, to the hissing water in the harbour, out between the two halves of the bridge, across and over Mrs Macquarie's Chair and out through The Heads to the ocean, deep, blue, unfathomable".

On another occasion, Lena performs the music of J.S. Bach on a strange electrical instrument. The sound is "filling all the spaces of the theatre, up to the red and golden height of it, to the honeycomb ceiling, through all the spaces, the arches and columns, into the arc of the back of every carved nymph on every fluted column, right on up to the gods".

These two passages lie a few pages apart in WA-born, Wellington- based Tracy Farr's opalescent debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Any closer and the parallelism would have appeared forced, while a wider interval would have diminished its subtle effects. As it stands, it's a terrific example of Farr's ability to, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant".

Like her fictional creation Lena, Farr translates the world. In Lena's case, it's via music; in Farr's, via words.

"I've been writing for a long time: notebooks, diaries, words," Farr says. "I used them to make sense of the world. Lena interprets the world through sound. She is someone who has trouble connecting, a solitary, insular person. Her instrument, the theremin, is a metaphor for that: you play without touching it."

The theremin, or etherwave, was invented by the Soviet physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, who is better known by his anglicised name Leon Theremin, some time before 1920. Played by moving the hands around two antennae - one for frequency and one for volume - the instrument's eerie, humanlike voice will be familiar to regular viewers of TV's Midsomer Murders.

Its first great virtuoso was former classical violinist Clara Rockmore (1911-1998 - you can hear her perform Rachmaninoff's Vocalise here: youtube.com/watch?v= WPZQi2m7i9Y).

In The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Farr has taken elements of Rockmore's life and career, as well as episodes from her own family history, to produce a rich, moving fictional biography that, among other things, explores the way we tell stories to ourselves and each other through different media - film, painting, music and words.

"I've always been interested in everything: music, art, film - artworks tell stories and music I liken to narrative," Farr says. "One of the things I love about fiction is you can make things up."

The novel duets between Lena's Cottesloe home of 1991, where she is being interviewed by documentary maker Maureen Patterson, or Mo, and the sometimes tarnished rainbow arc of her life. There are the places: Singapore, Malacca, Perth, Cottesloe, Sydney, Dunedin in New Zealand, Paris, St Ives. There are the people: Lena's parents, her uncle Valentine, the love of her life the artist Beatrix Carmichael, her cello teacher Madame Petrova and the Russian professor who introduces her to the instrument that will change her forever.

"We lived in North Cottesloe when I was growing up," Farr says. "My grandmother lived in the flat at the bathing pavilion, where her father was caretaker, during the Second World War. It was a happy time for them, living in the tower by the sea.

"Stories such as that have always leaked into my short fiction, and it seemed important to ground Lena in very specific times and places which I knew about. The material set in the 1990s almost wrote itself."

While Farr wouldn't call herself a musician, she loves music.

"I'm a complete amateur," she laughs. "I learnt classical guitar as a wee girl but it wasn't until I was in my 30s that I heard Yo-Yo Ma's recording of Bach's solo cello suites.

"My husband's the real musician. He's a scientist but he spends all his spare time making instruments and twiddling away on the guitar. The living room's full of guitars and there's always music on in the house."

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt is published by Fremantle Press ($27). Tracy Farr will be a guest of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.