The Hut Builder by New Zealand author Laurence Fearnley was the July choice for the ANZ LitLovers online reading group: the novel was the 2011 winner of the NZ Post Fiction Award, and is her eighth book.
The novel traces the evolution of a poet, not a poet from a privileged literary background, but a butcher’s son growing up in the obscurity of postwar Fairlie (on the South Island). Boden Black leads a very circumscribed life, socially and emotionally, but he is inspired by the beauty of the landscape around him and the quality of his work eventually places him in the company of New Zealand’s major poets.
Reading this book with its references to New Zealand poets such as Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Ursula Bethel made me realise that I really should have a copy of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. (I have a couple of others in this series, Christmas presents from my father). But the NZ Companion is more difficult to acquire than it should be: it’s out of print; second-hand copies at AbeBooks and elsewhere are horribly expensive; and Oxford’s subscription rates to the online version is a punishing £100 per year for individuals! Fortunately a ZPortal search to locate an interlibrary loan let me access the eBook version via my library membership, so I was able to read up about Bethel if not sample one of her poems. But that’s not what I want. I want the book to browse through and to have as a ready reference. Maybe a secondhand one will turn up at Brotherhood Books or Diversity Books one day…
Of course it’s not necessary to know anything about New Zealand poets to enjoy The Hut Builder. My guess is that anyone familiar with the places Fearnley writes about will be enchanted by the luminous prose describing places of great natural beauty such as the MacKenzie Basin, the Hermitage, and Mt Cook (Aorangi). I was especially interested in the narrative about building the hut at Mt Cook because The Offspring went ice-climbing in New Zealand when he was a very young man. At right is a photo of him in a snow cave similar to the one described in this book. I’m glad I hadn’t read The Hut Builder back then, I would have been beside myself with anxiety about him being snowed in!
The sequences in these hostile environments enable Fearnley to raise interesting questions about the nature of bravery. Her central character (who narrates the story) is not really a brave man. Although it takes some courage to follow the muse and become a poet in an unsupportive rural community, all his life Boden funks emotional engagement: he fears displays of emotion and he is terrified of revealing himself to others. His love of environment does lead him to take some risks, but these are muted in the narrative. Even when he takes the plunge and heads off up the mountain he does so in the company of very experienced climbers who nursemaid him through the experience. (I was not entirely convinced about the likelihood of this, Boden’s first ascent. My son had considerable climbing experience in Australia before attempting ice-climbing, and even so, the tour company put them through a training course before setting out. But maybe things were different in the 1950s.)
But Fearnley is more interested in moral courage than the courage to take physical risks. Sir Edmund Hillary and the other mountaineers are mere bit players in this narrative, a patriotic reminder that Hillary was a New Zealander, not British. Boden’s hesitancy in life stems from his childhood experiences, and the deaths of his twin brothers in particular. They were drowned when their ship went down during WW2, and Boden finds it very confronting to meet up with a conscientious objector who’d ‘sat out’ the war in prison. It takes a long time for Walter, a character almost as reticent as Boden himself, to reveal the tragedy which forces Boden to reassess his strongly held opinions about bravery and cowardice. However all of this reassessment is internal, he never says anything about his epiphany to Walter, or to anyone else.
Boden’s strange personality is what made this story interesting for me. He’s a very self-contained individual, observant of others and much given to analysing his own behaviour. Fearnley explores all kinds of issues through this character: nature v nurture in his complex upbringing; identity and what the nature of family might mean; and the emotional walls that humans build to protect themselves from hurt. Boden hunkers down inside an emotional hut because he has never bonded with anyone, and none of these issues are really resolved because they can’t be. By the time Boden finds out who he really is, it seems to be too late for him to connect with almost anyone. Fearnley eschews the ‘happy ending’ that many in similar situations seek. For Boden, acceptance is the best he can hope for.
Weaving a story around a cast of very reticent characters is risky. Although the reader is privy to Boden’s thoughts, the motivations of the other characters remain opaque except for his observations and interpretations. This is especially so with the character of Stella, the woman with whom Boden has a curious relationship: they are ‘partners’ but they don’t live together. They rely on an intermediary to communicate their love for one another, and it takes external events for Boden to realise that he cares a lot about her. Is this love? Is it satisfactory for Stella? This unresolved relationship may be authentic, given the circumstances of Boden’s emotional upbringing, but it may not satisfy some readers.
Paula Green reviewed the book at the NZ Herald and so did Rachel Wallis at the Sunday Star Times. There’s also one at the NZ Post Awards Facebook Page but I’m not sure if you can access that if you’re not on Facebook. And, if you’ve read the book, do visit This Fluid Thrill for this most interesting ’writerly’ analysis of this book.
Author: Laurence Fearnley
Title: The Hut Builder
Publisher: Penguin NZ, 2010
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $29.39
Fishpond: The Hut Builder
Book Depository: The Hut Builder