The Quiet Spectacular by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House, 2016), 295 pp., $38
What constantly stands out for me in New Zealand fiction is how our land, our environment, our geography is such an inherent part of the narrative, almost like another participant in the story, forming the backdrop to everything that takes place. I have immediately thought of John Mulgan’s Man Alone, or the more recent The Party Line by Sue Orr. For me the most wonderful collision between Nature and Human, I just cannot go past Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider.
It is just so in this, Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel, her tenth: the landscape has its own life, its own crucial part to play in the narrative. Wetlands are her location of choice in this story, becoming the common ground where three very different women of various ages, stages, conflicts and histories randomly come together. Each interacts with the surroundings differently – the birds, the lake, the bush floor, the rodents, the quiet, the mysterious den. At all times there is respect, care, nurturing and being at one with the surroundings, a place of healing and comfort. Each woman finds a strength arising from both the surroundings and their unusual camaraderie, which enables them to begin the process of facing down the conflicts in their individual lives.
Take a look at the cover, impossible to replicate via an e-reader. The sheer brilliance of colour, the delicacy of the drawings, how each leaf and flower is so vividly brought to life. The illustrations are by Audrey Eagle, a botanical illustrator who has given much to New Zealand’s knowledge bank of native flora. A spectacular woman in her own right, I wonder if she was deliberately chosen by the author as an example of a woman quietly and spectacularly going about her life on her own terms.
The story is set in a provincial town, close to Christchurch. I feel that it is somewhere like Ashburton, or Timaru: large enough to be interesting, but small enough to be a little suffocating. Who then are the quiet spectaculars that people the pages of this novel? The story is framed around three characters: Loretta, Chance and Riva. Each third of the book is narrated by one of these women, the links between them gradually building and evolving and coming together in the last 20 pages.
Loretta is in her mid-forties, a high-school librarian, married, mother to a 12-year-old boy. She is going through a stage in life where she doesn’t know what to do next. She knows her son is gradually going to draw away from her as he enters his teen years; her marriage seems to have stalled; she loves her job, but it seems to have lost its spark. She feels she is becoming invisible, her youth and vitality whittling away, just another middle-aged woman whose life is running downhill. During one of her ‘waiting for Kit’ sessions, she comes across The Dangerous Book for Boys. Randomly opening it she begins to flick through the pages.
Loretta’s lightbulb moment. What has she done that is dangerous in her life? What have her friends done? Aside from giving birth, it would seem not much. She wonders what has happened to the hopeful, adventurous, curious young girl she once was. Loretta resolves to write The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women, a book about women who have done dangerous things, who will never become invisible – and in the process, maybe learn a thing or two herself on having an adventurous life. While waiting for Kit on yet another day, she begins to explore the wetlands, finding an abandoned den that becomes a haven, her place to be alone, to think.
Chance is a 15-year-old girl, a pupil at the local high school where Loretta is the librarian. She lives with her parents and two older brothers on a goat farm. Like 99.9 per cent of Year 10 girls she is unhappy, unsure of where she fits in both at home and at school, who she is, who she wants to be – a loner. Her one possible ally, her mother, is deeply unhappy in her own life, taking her anger and bitterness out on her daughter.
One day at home Chance too comes across The Dangerous Book for Boys, given to one of her brothers. As with Loretta, a new world begins to reveal itself, her rural upbringing giving her ample opportunity and tools to become her own intrepid adventurer. Her father and brothers’ passion for go-karting means they aren’t terribly interested in what she is up to, and her desperation to get away from her mother takes her to the Tinker Wetlands where she too discovers the den, her own refuge, a space where she can be entirely her own person.
Chance knows Loretta in her capacity as the school librarian. The girl is a great reader, but not really by choice, her mother forcing upon her titles that they must later discuss. What mother gives her daughter Lolita to read? Loretta is quietly appalled at all this, and in an attempt to help Chance choose her own reading material, inadvertently sends her on the path of taxidermy. What unfolds is funny, believable, ‘dangerous’, enabling Chance to see that she is her own powerhouse, that she does have a voice worth being heard.
Lastly, Riva, certainly not invisible, or ever likely to be. In her early to mid-sixties, she is the owner of the wetlands where everything quietly and spectacularly comes together. In the not too distant past Riva was a successful businesswoman, but had returned to New Zealand to nurse Irene, her terminally ill sister. She had also bought the abandoned, rundown wetlands area, transforming it into the Tinker Wetlands.
Riva is grieving, still. The fourth-year anniversary of Irene’s death is coming up, and it’s time for Riva to put into effect a promise she made to Irene before she died. This promise is beginning to consume Riva. She doesn’t know what to do or how to do it – until Loretta and Chance quite separately enter her life. Chance, in particular, grabs her heart – a girl just leaving childhood, taking uncertain steps into adulthood. There is no suggestion that Chance is the daughter Riva never had, but a wonderful bond of trust and mutual respect builds between the two, centred on the wetlands reserve. Riva takes Chance’s taxidermy seriously, helping her to trap animals, conversing with her in that wonderful way where adults treat teenagers like adults and not overgrown children.
With support from these two older and quite different women, Chance blossoms. There are moments of doubt of course, but it is only when her mother treats her in a most shocking and humiliating fashion that Chance does rise like a phoenix, breaking away. What follows is the quiet spectacular between these three women that enables them all to see that future of possibilities.
I found while reading this book that I thought about my role as a parent and how many of us try hard to be gender-neutral in our parenting. The reversal of ‘dolls for girls and cars for boys’ is the obvious example of this, as is teaching boys to cook, and ensuring your girls know how to change a tyre. But still we find that girls are primarily the carers and nurturers, boys the adventurers and action heroes. This is not the place to get into nature vs nurture, and I certainly don’t know the answer! But I don’t think it is any easier fighting these stereotypes now than it was 20 years ago when I was in the early stages of parenting.
I see therefore that there is another important character in this novel – The Dangerous Book for Boys. There is no author named by Fearnley or mentioned in her acknowledgements, but a quick Google search does reveal a book of this name: a guidebook for boys aged eight to 80, covering around 80 topics on all sorts of things such as building a tree hut, teaching a dog tricks, astronomy, crystals and much more. Activities of course that girls can do too, funny old thing! There is also The Daring Book for Girls. Why could it not also be called ‘dangerous’? This also has a wide range of activities and information such as building a raft, camping, famous women, running a lemonade stall. Not quite as breath-taking as what boys do … but still better than being forced to read Lolita or fill in time waiting for the 12-year-old to finish orchestra or water polo!
The Dangerous Book for Boys, full of activities and attitudes that girls do not partake in, is the catalyst for Loretta and Chance to look at their lives. They see, in their different generations and lives, that they aren’t supposed to have adventures, to be in charge of their own lives – unlike their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. Loretta’s life is dull, she has put herself at the beck and call of her son and often absent husband, sliding into middle-aged oblivion. Chance only has the tragic example of her mother as a role model for her life, and try as she might to be her mother’s daughter, instinctively she knows that something is very wrong with this relationship.
Threaded through the narrative is the bizarre and never explained disappearance of Valerie Mansford, a local woman, very ordinary, no apparent foul play or suspicious circumstances. One day she leaves her house and she doesn’t come back. She is of course symbolic of the invisibility cloak that Loretta feels she is being enveloped in. I like nice neat conclusions and I would very much like to have known what happened to Valerie. Did she come to an unpleasant end, or did she step out of her comfort zone and begin a life of adventure? Who would know?
It is a gentle book, a story of self-discovery, self-worth, the power of friendship and the bonds that develop between women. I loved the characters of Loretta, Chance and Riva, all quite different, so carefully crafted and real. I can picture exactly what they look like, how they dress, their body language, their stillness, their essence. The wetlands, described so vividly, sensuously, with its huge diversity of plant and animal life, is the perfect backdrop to the conflicts simmering away in the background.
FELICITY MURRAY blogs about books at kiwiflorareads.blogspot.com. She has a BA in history, a post-graduate diploma in banking, and a diploma in horticulture.