Promising softly-spoken wonder, Thom Conroy

The Quiet Spectacular
Laurence Fearnley
Penguin, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143574156

Laurence Fearnley occupies a position somewhere between national treasure and experimental writer. Her depictions of landscapes and her stylistic tendency toward restraint inspire praise, with reviews admiring Fearnley for how markedly Kiwi her fiction is. Writing of her 2014 novel Reach, David Hill goes so far as to see in Fearnley’s prose the evidence of a “distinct South Island literary style”. He writes:

Owen Marshall, Brian Turner, Fiona Farrell, Maurice Gee: there’s a measured pace about their cadences and characters; a gravity of tone, yet with an undercutting irreverence; an engagement with the wide, framing physical landscape that you don’t seem to find so often north of Cook Strait.

Being a national treasure has its benefits, but it is not without its drawbacks. Fearnley has commented on the distinct appeal of her fiction to New Zealand audiences. When she was told by a publisher after the success of Edwin and Matilda that her work was “too New Zealand” for overseas audiences, she reacted strongly, vowing to write a book “so New Zealand that anyone who isn’t a New Zealander won’t understand half of it”. The Hut Builder, her seventh novel, was the book arising from this vow, and in 2011 it won the New Zealand Post Book Awards fiction prize. I suspect that the lack of international promotion of Fearnley’s fiction has more to do with a widespread, but debilitating, misperception among New Zealand publishers than it does with the potential of Fearnley’s work to interest overseas audiences who, in my experience, are often hungry for narratives set in remote and exotic locations such as New Zealand. Either way, it’s tempting to read a nationalistically-inflected and self-fulfilling prophecy in the story of the New Zealander who wrote a story so New Zealand that she won the country’s highest literary prize for her efforts.

Read the reviews of Fearnley’s fiction, however, and an alternative narrative emerges. In this version, she appears as an experimental artist whose work is always predicated on the risk of her craft. What Fearnley most commonly risks in her fiction is the omission of the kinds of extraordinary incidents of plot that have become de rigueur. The action in her work sometimes takes place off-stage but, more commonly, her fiction doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional action. A majority of readers will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that they come to fiction for a satisfying narrative experience grounded in an engaging plot. To threaten the possibility of this experience is perilous business: it is experimentation conducted at the vanguard of fiction.

While The Hut Builder secured Fearnley the New Zealand Post prize, even this accolade didn’t insulate her from reviewers who found the book a bit too subtle for their tastes. One reviewer branded the novel “a test of the reader’s empathetic power”. This kind of divided response has been typical throughout Fearnley’s prolific writing career. While reviewers such as Hill agreed that Reach was a literary accomplishment, others were less generous. Drawing on Nabokov’s quip that all his characters were “galley slaves”, Chris Else, reviewing Reach for Landfall Online wrote, “Fearnley’s characters are no more free and, slavery being a deplorable and inhuman institution, I felt an injustice had been done.”

This rift in responses to Fearnley’s fiction continues in reviews of The Quiet Spectacular. Katy Watson, for instance, rates the book worthy of the superlative in its title, and writes admiringly, “You know you are reading a good book when you find that the author seems to be inside your own head, and knows your secret thoughts.” Wyoming Paul, writing for The Spinoff, offers a somewhat grimmer appraisal of Fearnley’s latest: “Unfortunately, much of the book falls flat . . . There are important themes and issues at work, but not a lot of weight, or emotional depth.” For me, this divided response speaks to the dual nature of Fearnley’s status as, on the one hand, an adored icon of the New Zealand literary scene and, on the other, a writer willing to gamble the interest of readers in the cause of innovation.

The Quiet Spectacular is told in four parts, three of which are narrated from the point-of-view of a different character. “Loretta”, the first section of the novel, tells the story of a middle-aged high school librarian named Loretta who discovers a secret den in a wetlands reserve. Loretta’s consciousness is rendered with enough nuance, self-reflection and humour to make her a thoroughly compelling character and, for the first third of the novel, I found myself gently enchanted in that way I imagine Fearnley intended in a book whose title promises a soft-spoken sort of wonder. Wonder is wonder, nonetheless, and as a reader I’m delighted to take it at whatever decibel it’s offered.

The novel’s second section, “Chance”, is narrated from the point-of-view of a 15-year-old goat-farmer’s daughter who attends the school where Loretta works as a librarian. Chance is bullied by her mother, unappreciated by her father, and more or less detested by her peers. She is a clumsy, well-intentioned, believable character whom I so much wanted to love. Unfortunately, her concerns were often so familiar and her experiences so anti-climatic that I found my desire to identify with her thwarted.

In what strikes me as perhaps the most questionable narrative decision in a carefully crafted novel, the third section of The Quiet Spectacular is told from the point-of-view of an older woman named Riva. Like Chance, Riva was a character I yearned to love, but in spite of the fact that she was furnished with a rich backstory, a complex emotional situation and a clear ethical worldview, I found Riva’s narrative a bit aloof and tired, and I never could connect with her as a character.

To my mind, the genius of The Quiet Spectacular lies in its brief fourth section, which brings the characters of the three previous sections together. After seeing how effortlessly the characters interacted, and feeling the emotional payoff of them appearing on the page together, I wondered why the whole of the novel didn’t simply include all the characters in a story narrated from one richly developed perspective, and I found myself craving the beguiling and sensitive consciousness of Loretta as the novel’s sole narrative presence.

If The Quiet Spectacular is an artistic experiment, it is a study of the narrative potential of the ordinary. In language that is exquisitely crafted and yet stubbornly prosaic, Fearnley seems to be declaring that readers who yearn for romance or spectacle, or even the gentle escapism of a surprising plot, are asking too much of fiction. Or, perhaps, merely asking something that fiction can no longer provide. In the place of the more standard machinery, Fearnley offers an almost overpowering dose of the quotidian. What’s more, she offers it in prose that I would describe as elegantly commonplace. In the following extract, Loretta wanders into a wetlands landscape that will become a vital setting in the novel, but her entrance into this highly symbolic landscape is most remarkable for being unremarkable:

The wetlands carpark was deserted. Empty cans littered the grass in the picnic area. Ducks pecked at a pizza carton, while, nearby, a sparrow attempted to demolish a finger-length strip of crust. Close by, a black hoodie was draped over the entrance gate. As Loretta passed through, she absent-mindedly picked up the garment, checking its condition and size. It looked like something a teenager would wear, and examining it more closely she noticed a dark oily stain on one sleeve that extended across the hem.

In this marvellous passage, Fearnley depicts a mundane moment in delicious prose, and the contrast between the humdrum content and the precision with which it’s rendered is a fascinating example of her latest novel going about its business in a quietly spectacular fashion.

I believe Fearnley’s experiments make significant enough contributions to New Zealand literature to excuse any narrative shortcomings. What I find most thrilling about her work is its compulsion to risk the thrills of plot and pageant for the unobtrusive incidents of the everyday. While I’m sure there are many who are drawn to Fearnley for her status as an archetypal New Zealand writer, I admire her courage to challenge our expectations for story laden with the obstreperous pleasures of plot and spectacle.

Thom Conroy teaches creative writing at Massey University and is the author of The Salted Air, reviewed on p10.

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