Sunday, 26 October 2014

Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin 2014)

Laurence Fearnley’s novel is an antidote to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch’s suffocating detail.  I read the Pulitzer award winning novel before Fearnley’s, and while I enjoyed it in parts, I found myself skimming over her wordy descriptions which suggests to me that those details weren’t necessary to the narrative.  And, at the conclusion of The Goldfinch I expected the theme to be somewhat more profound, given that the author had spent 700 odd pages to illustrate it.  Anyhow, this is a blog about New Zealand books and I only mention my reaction to The Goldfinch because I picked up Fearnley’s novel straight afterwards and sighed with relief.  Fearnley is a writer who cuts to the chase by using sparse language and beautiful descriptions to convey emotional depth, and engagement with the landscape.

Reach is Fearnley’s eighth novel.  The writing is confident and assured as the narrative follows the two main characters, Marcus and Quinn.  Marcus is a vet and is professionally doing quite well.  He has been living with Quinn for several years.  Marcus left his wife and daughter to live with Quinn, and hasn’t had any contact with his daughter who now lives overseas with her mother.  Marcus replays these actions in his head over the course of the novel, trying to convince himself that he isn’t a bad person.  Quinn is a successful artist who is preparing for an upcoming exhibition.  The relationship between Marcus and Quinn is one of two successful people who are together but also have independent lives.  Neither of the pair are very good at communicating with each other (or with others), and you get a sense that as their relationship has continued the list of things that remain unsaid has grown.  This creates a distance between the two, and when they are negotiating this gap, Callum turns up.

Callum is a deep sea diver who lives in a housetruck that occasionally parks outside Quinn’s house on the coast.  He is a man who finds diving an almost meditative experience and thrives on the beauty of the deep sea environment.  Callum and Quinn meet on the beach and after some awkward conversations, Callum describes what he sees when diving and Quinn pictures this in her mind, and creates a print of it for him.  Even though she has never dived, and can’t even swim, through Callum’s description she can relate to his experience of diving through her art.  Throughout the narrative the role of art in communicating and connecting with people is played out.  However, Quinn’s choice of subject matter for her exhibition – marriage - also confuses the lines of communication.  Callum dreads the content, fearing that their relationship will be portrayed negatively.

The symbol of the umbilical cord comes up a few times in the narrative.  Art as an umbilical that connects people, but also an umbilical cord, of sorts, connects Callum to his ship and fellow divers when he is saturation diving.  There are also umbilical cords between mother and child, between father and child.  Essentially the novel is about connection, who we choose to be attached to and what pushes people apart.  The narrative drive of the novel is whether Quinn and Callum will stay together.

My only niggle with the book is that the city where its set is called Cook.  To me, it feels like Quinn’s house is on the South Coast of Wellington, near Owhiro Bay, but then other descriptions made me think is in Dunedin.  It doesn’t really matter, it’s not imperative to the unfolding action, I guess I just found the other details so specific and apt that I wanted the place to be specific too.  I live in Wellington, but also lived in Dunedin and can see the similarities between the topography of the cities.  Sometimes when I’m walking from Berhampore into Newtown down Adelaide Road I mistake Mt Kaukau for Mt Cargill.

I really enjoyed this novel and its careful examination of relationships.  I’ve already recommended the book to three other people.  I should note that Laurence Fearnley was a reader for Master’s thesis a.k.a. my first failed novel.  She gave me some great comments, but alas it hasn’t found a home outside of my bedroom.  When I met her in person some time later, I asked her what you should do when your first novel doesn’t fly, and she said, write another one.  Which is what she did, to a great deal of success, and it’s advice that I am currently following.


  1. Interesting - I LOVED 'The Goldfinch' - but enjoyed reading your comments and I really like Laurence Fearnley's writing - and indeed I really liked your first novel and know too how well you use the 'sparse' and understated to cut to the chase and evoke terrific characters and emotional depth - I'm just about finished Ian Wedde's ''The Grass Catcher'... somewhat wordy in places and utterly intriguing in others.

    1. Yes, I'm completely bias as to the aesthetic I enjoy. I did read "The Goldfinch" while I had an ear infection and was a bit grumpy so that could've influenced my reading. I must check out "The Grass Catcher" - I did enjoy his talk at Te Papa. And thanks re novel :)