Reach, by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, 2014), 288 pp., $38
The blurb for Laurence Fearnley’s most recent novel, Reach, tells us that the book is ‘about risk-taking and the ways in which creativity, struggle and danger enrich people’s lives’. We shouldn’t take blurbs too seriously – they inevitably include at least a modicum of puffery – but this one seems unusually off the mark. The narrative present of Reach is set, for the most part, in a small beach community with a handful of inhabitants. The greatest risk anyone takes is going scuba-diving after drinking a bottle of wine; the greatest danger is giving birth; the level of struggle is comparable to what you would find in a Jane Austen novel. In contrast, the overwhelming impression the novel gave me was of people in the dark, feeling about for one another: not risk-taking but misunderstanding, not struggle but failure to communicate, not enrichment but a yearning for contact. The novel’s title thus seems a better pointer to what the book is about than its blurb.
Quinn has a successful career as an artist. She and Marcus, a veterinary surgeon, have been living together for eight or so years. Quinn is looking for an idea for a new exhibition and, over the course of the novel, we see this develop into a series of etchings on the theme of marriage. Marcus, meanwhile, renews contact with his daughter Audrey, who lives in England, and after some trepidation he decides to accompany her on a trip to Israel. The third principle character is Callum, a professional diver who, between jobs, turns up from time to time in his housetruck. All three are emotional isolates, drawing strength and solace from solitary activity. All three are also scarred by their pasts.
Quinn is emotionally self-sufficient; she has few friends and lives for her art. It might be too strong to say that she loves Marcus, but she likes him and appreciates him and enjoys his company when she isn’t working. She is still haunted by two miscarriages, one of which was an induced delivery of a dead, late-term baby.
Callum wants only to dive. His itinerant lifestyle means he has no friends or family connections. He feels lonely at times but he suffers this in order to pursue his love for the undersea. He is marked by the death of a fellow diver. In an attempt to rescue the man, Callum lost the top joint of a thumb.
Marcus is more social than either of the other two but he finds it difficult to express positive feelings to anyone and has built an emotional wall between his relationship with Quinn and his failed marriage to Vivienne. This has led to estrangement from his daughter, Audrey, for whom he still grieves. He works off these conflicts through running.
The novel consists of an elaborate dance in which these three characters reach out to one another. Hands are a motif that runs through the story and the attempts at contact are by turns tentative, hopeful, clumsy, blind and desperate. Callum and Quinn come to realise that they are kindred spirits. They engage in a delicate pas-de-deux in which their mutual attraction is expressed in small gifts: symbolic tributes to the other’s solitary passion – her art and his diving. Quinn wants Marcus to acknowledge and affirm her art, but he is too inarticulate to do so. He loves her, however his commitment to their relationship is compromised by his alienation from Audrey and his unresolved guilt over Vivienne and their marriage breakdown. This emotional distance is bridged in tiny moments of intimacy, such as a touch or a poignant kiss of a hand.
Such a description might suggest that this novel is formless, but the opposite is true; it is as tightly structured as any Hollywood script. In fact, it might have been written according to script guru Blake Snyder’s formula. At the end of act one, which occurs precisely at Snyder’s recommended 23 per cent through the story, Quinn and Marcus’s ordinary world is disturbed by his re-establishment of communication with Audrey. At the exact midpoint, where a major crisis is supposed to occur, Quinn discovers she is pregnant. Neither she nor Marcus want this: she because she is terrified that she will lose this baby, too, and because it will interfere with her art; he because he has already been separated from one child and cannot bear the thought of it happening again. According to Snyder’s scheme, act two should end, at the 77 per cent mark, with a sequence that signifies ‘the dark night of the soul’, and so it does here. On page 221 – out of 286 (77 per cent) – Marcus is left in despair as Quinn sails away on a ferry. ‘He watched horrified and let out a long, low groan. He couldn’t believe it. She was gone. He’d let her go.’
This kind of precision is a characteristic of Fearnley’s writing at all levels. Her character descriptions are closely observed and subtly rendered, and she is capable of considerable emotional intensity; the scene where Quinn relives the induced delivery of her dead baby, for example, is poignant and heart-rending. The style of the novel is beautifully modulated, too; simple, clear and self-effacing, enlivened now and again by sharp, insightful metaphor. Paragraph by paragraph, the writing is hard to fault. I noticed only one ugly sentence in the whole book. This is a novel in which a very good writer is in complete control of her material.
But therein lies the problem. Reach is such a carefully choreographed performance that I was reminded of Nabokov’s scornful response to the idea that writers sometimes find their characters getting out of hand: ‘My characters are galley slaves’, he told Herbert Gold in a Paris Review interview. Fearnley’s characters are no more free and, slavery being a deplorable and inhuman institution, I felt an injustice had been done. The isolation of Callum and especially, Marcus and Quinn, is only partly an aspect of their characters; much of it is down to Fearnley’s artifice.
Reach contains long and loving descriptions of solitary activity: diving or preparing an etching plate or running through forest. By contrast, the descriptions of significant interactions between people are brief and indirect. All the big dramatic moments occur off stage and are delivered to the reader through one or other of the characters’ solitary recollections. Thus, we do not see Marcus telling Quinn that he is thinking of going to Israel, or what happened when he was eventually reunited with Audrey. Nor do we see Quinn telling Marcus that she is pregnant, or her informing him that she is going away to be on her own and won’t see him again till after the baby is born. In the last case, in particular, the moment is fudged. Marcus later reflects that he does not know where Quinn has gone. Did he not ask her? And, if he did, did she refuse to tell him? If so, why? And what did he feel about this refusal? Fearnley’s controlled treatment of the relationship strips it of all its emotional exchanges, all intensity and passion. Unless Quinn’s baby is a virgin birth, she and Marcus must have got beyond a kiss on the hand at least once in the novel, but you would never know it from the way their story is told.
This artificial separation of the characters results in a simplification of the relationships. So much is left unstated and unexamined that a satisfactory resolution to the story would require a miraculous piece of writing. Fearnley, I fear, does not pull it off. Reach ends on a note of hope and redemption. Quinn carries her newborn son around her exhibition, and is happy to receive as much praise for the child as for the works of art. She has changed: she is no longer so self-absorbed and work-obsessed. Marcus is coming back from Israel, and everything will be well.
We might be tempted to buy into this vision of the future, until we begin to reflect on what has happened to Marcus, who disappeared 25 pages from the end. We are told that Quinn has talked to him over the phone (yet another crucial incident that happens off stage):
They were going to work something out: they missed each other and wanted to be together, somehow.
This perfunctory dismissal of all their problems, and of everything Marcus has gone through in meeting Audrey again, reduces the ending to little more than sentiment. Are we meant to read it ironically? I don’t think so. Quinn’s palpable tenderness and love for her baby dominate the scene and demand that we take it at face value. Meanwhile, below decks, the characters are chained to their oars, rowing the boat into a golden sunset.
CHRIS ELSE is a writer and reviewer. He also works as a literary mentor and manuscript assessor. He lives in Wellington.