Scoop Review of Books

Gains and Losses

by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $38)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

Reach_CoverRisk management, hazards, opportunities created by risk-taking – in my professional life I’m familiar with these terms. But I wouldn’t have thought Fearnley’s latest novel explored “risk-taking and the ways in which creativity, struggle and danger enrich people’s lives”, as the Penguin blurb would have it. The risks Fearnley’s characters take are typical of the world’s characters everywhere, both fictional and real. And there’s no such thing in life as zero risk.
I found Reach slow to engage with at first, but as with a new acquaintance, the rewards came with patience, in the manner of main character Quinn’s inked etching plates being exposed. The underwater theme running through the story is also a good analogy for this novel; sometimes it’s hard to see where you’re heading and what you’ll find, and need to struggle your way out of seaweed tendrils to see the light shining on something, previously hidden, right in front of you.

The three main characters are appropriately flawed human beings, who both aggravate and engage the reader with their behaviours and beliefs. Artist Quinn is an unusual woman by any measure; Marcus is more sympatico with animals than with people; Callum, who prefers the underwater world, is the wild card interacting with them both as he comes and goes from their lives.

Quinn’s drawings tell her past stories, Marcus see things ahead of him as he runs and these remind him of past events, while Callum is under water (like a foetus in amniotic fluid) much of his time and bobs up now and then to tell a few of his own stories. Quinn has, literally, her internal and external worlds; Marcus is slow to re-engage with a distant daughter and with other important relationships. Each loses and gains, loses and gains, as they develop their friendships. It’s that old chestnut, too, where the man or woman opens up his or her old wounds to another person and exposes their psychological bloody gore. It  creates a closeness in certain types of people, and I see it as the false intimacy of self-exposure. Sometimes I wanted to bang the characters’ heads together. Or send them to their rooms. Metaphorically speaking, they mainly stay in their rooms even when together. It is their departures from their internal rooms that lead the story to a climax.

I learned a lot about the etching process, the layering, the enriching of the metal plate with ink followed by the wiping clean – and if you’ve ever drawn you can feel the artist’s hand moving over her paper as she draws, your hand becomes her hand. This is good writing. Via Marcus, I learned that if a dead penguin has an empty stomach when autopsied, it indicates recent vomiting. And one of the best lines is attributed to Callum’s ex-partner in response to his conversation attempts: “Blah, blah, blah, diving, blah, blah, blah, fish”.

Award-winning writer Fearnley, whose most recent novel is the much-acclaimed historical The Hut Builder (Penguin 2010), offers an unusual set of characters in Reach, with her usual enriching attention to the New Zealand landscape.