Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2016

Reach, by Laurence Fearnley

Reach (Laurence Fearnley)Laurence Fearnley is an award-winning New Zealand writer, with a keen interest in writing about New Zealand craft artists.  She is a prolific author, publishing a new novel every year or every other year:

  • The Sound of Her Body (1998)
  • Room (2000), shortlisted for the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards
  • Delphine’s Run (2003)
  • Butler’s Ringlet (2004)
  • Degrees of Separation (2006), written following her Antarctic Fellowship
  • Edwin + Matilda (2007), runner-up in the fiction category of the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
  • Mother’s Day,  (2009)
  • The Hut Builder (2010) was the winner of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction.  (See my review)

Reach, (2014) longlisted for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Fiction is Fearnley’s ninth novel.  It’s what I call an ‘intense relationship novel’, one which unravels the mysterious ways that people behave by revealing interior thoughts not shared with the other characters.

Quinn is a successful artist, well-known in the New Zealand art world but starting to brood about up-and-coming young artists.  It seems to her that they are getting publicity for doing work that is derivative – but the critics are not acknowledging her influence.  She is intensely focussed on her art, thinking about it all the time, but is very choosy about discussing it with her partner Marcus, (a vet who’s also a university lecturer).  She says this is because she’s ‘not good with words’ but it’s really because she’s wary of his reactions.  She has a rather prickly personality, and has a tendency to despise the people in arts administration:

Even when the conversation was about one of her exhibitions, she tended to have the distinct impression that the content of her drawings or etchings was of little concern to the people who worked in the art world.  They weren’t interested in the thought or skills that went into each image.  To all intents and purposes, her art was little more than a commodity, a status symbol for a select few.  (p.75)

For most of the early part of the book, the focus is on points of mostly unspoken conflict between Quinn and Marcus, so much so that one wonders why they are in a relationship at all.  Marcus left his marriage for Quinn, and his relationship with his daughter Audrey has also failed, just as she reached the age where she could share his passion for running.  He met Quinn through a series of initially innocent encounters but eventually started an affair with her, compounding the betrayal by steadfastly lying about it even when he had reached the stage of leaving Vivienne.

He knew he should be honest with Vivienne.  But at the same time, he felt his relationship with Quinn belonged to him.  It was his. And he wanted it to remain intact.  Bringing it out into the open would cause it to crumble and break away, like a cliff eroded by the sea. (p.51)

He doesn’t tell Quinn that he was married, either, not until well after the affair had begun.  And there are more flaws in this character: he makes a demand that forces a major decision for any woman of child-bearing age.  He insists that they not have children, because he fears the pain of losing another child.  And although Quinn creates a major exhibition featuring ultrasounds from her two miscarriages, he believes her when she claims not to be grieving about them and that she’s focussed on her art.  This is a relationship with major communication difficulties, Quinn because she’s not very self-aware and Marcus because his hidden marriage is a festering sore that resurfaces in every argument that they have.

So when Quinn eventually gets round to revealing that her upcoming exhibition is going to be on the theme of marriage, it’s not surprising that Marcus reacts badly.  “There’s something wrong with you’ he says, and accuses her of using their life for her art.  Predictably, Quinn doesn’t agree with this:

Despite what he might think, the exhibition wasn’t about him or her or anything from his past.  What took place in their life and their relationship was real; what went into her art was something else, something abstract.  She could never really explain it to Marcus because she wasn’t good with words, but art was something she needed to do in order to make sense of her life.  It wasn’t about her life, as such – it was simply a way of approaching and understanding it. Marcus could not see the difference between the two ideas. ‘If you make art in order to understand your life, then it follows that it is about your life.’  When he said things like that she became flustered and tended to withdraw.  If he persisted, demanding to know what the difference was, she would become defensive and attack.  That was usually how it went. (pp.70-71)

Into this relationship with enough friction … to make it work without being destructive comes Callum.  He’s a deep sea diver in love with the sea, no good at relationships because he travels the world and likes to do dangerous things like diving alone at night.  Although he’s well-paid he lives near Quinn and Marcus by the sea in a ‘house truck’ which means he is moved on by council rangers from time to time.  Temperamentally, he’s a free spirit, with a profound love of the marine environment, and like Quinn, he takes walks along the coast …

The story is told from all three perspectives – but not that of Audrey who comes back into Marcus’s life as a gap-year adolescent, playing him off against her mother when she wants to travel alone to Israel.  Audrey is the catalyst for decisions that Marcus must make, having to choose between what might be his last chance to restore a relationship with his daughter, and being there for Quinn when she really needs him.  Callum is the catalyst for Quinn to choose between a soulmate and someone worth taking the trouble to know.

The ending is ambiguous, with significant threads of the novel unresolved, but for a novel like this that dissects problematic relationships, that ambiguity is a realistic scenario.

Author: Laurence Fearnley
Title: Reach
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2014
ISBN: 9780143571728
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.

Fishpond: Reach


  1. […] Fiction: (I’ll update this list from time to time as I add my reviews) The Antipodeans by Greg McGee (Upstart Press) Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press) The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press) (See my review and a Sensational Snippet) Chappy by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House) See my review The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Hodder & Stoughton) See my review Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) See my review The Invisible Mile by David Coventry (Victoria University Press) The Legend of Winstone Blackhat by Tanya Moir (Penguin Random House) (Update 4/12/15, abandoned.  I don’t usually review books I didn’t continue, but you can read my thoughts at Goodreads). The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin Random House) See my review Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House) See my review […]


  2. now this does sound rather good, so good that I’ve added it to my wishlist. that comment about art being viewed as a commodity is something a lot of artists are afraid of I suspect but probably only when they have already made a name for themselves and can afford to do art that isn’t overtly commercial.


    • There are quite a few observations about art that offer pause for thought. There was a snippet about people who wander through a gallery, taking longer to read the labels on the artworks than to actually look at them. Hmm, I thought, that’s me in a modern art gallery, I mostly do that. Oh dear, I have failed Gallery Visiting 101.

      And then I thought, it’s all very well for this character to be judgemental about that, but (usually) if I don’t get some context about a modern artwork I have no idea how to interpret it.

      An example: consider a waist high pile of bullet-grey wrapped ‘sweets’ swept into a corner of the room. I could look at that for half an hour and not ‘get it’. But when I read the label and realised that the ‘sweets’ were alluding to the sweets that victorious American GIs handed out to the children after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I ‘got it’ straight away. And although I didn’t stay there looking at it the way this character thought I should, that artwork has stayed with me – I can see it in my mind’s eye as clearly as if I am standing in front of it holding back my emotions – and I think of it every time I see TV footage of children injured in the mayhem in Iraq…


  3. It seems to me the author herself may be defensive both about relationships and about reactions to her art, ie. writing. But as for your own reactions to art, I don’t think modern art makes sense without context.


    • *smile* I suppose people who are experts would probably say that about all kinds of art, but yes, I can look at the Arnolfini Marriage and not know a thing about the symbols and miss most of its meaning and still love it.
      I wondered about the author’s great skill in getting inside the heads of her men. Both of them behave in ways that baffle me, and probably most women if I may be so bold. I mean, why would the husband lie about having an affair on the very day that he’s leaving his wife to go and be with another woman? It makes no sense and it seems like an unforgiveable act of treachery. Why, once the affair has gained some momentum that might lead to permanence, would he not tell his lover that he’s married, how appalling is that, eh? And yet his reasons, once revealed make sense, they are coherent once all the aspects of his life and personality are exposed. But how does this author know enough of the male psyche to make this work so well? We are always told that men are not in touch with their feelings and no good at expressing the inner man … does Fearnley have a brother or a father or a husband or a friend that breaks this mould and can articulate these inchoate feelings? Is she just extremely observant at reading people? Or has she just imagined them to make the inexplicable manageable in her novel?


      • Men are not in touch with their …. what? I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.
        I wonder if the author is not trying to say that men are not in touch with women’s feelings.


        • *chuckle* Sorry…I didn’t express it very well. I think this author is trying to explore feelings from all different angles, for both men and women. But the woman’s feelings are more recognisable to me… being obsessed with work at the expense of relationships, suppressing grief about miscarriage, not saying what she thinks because she thinks he won’t understand or because it’s just not worth the hassle. But the man’s feelings are more of a muddle, not fully formed. She (the author) shows him feeling a sort of possessiveness about this affair, lying about it because it’s ‘his’. I have trouble understanding that, because it’s logical that the lie will be found out and there will be even more trouble because of it.
          None of them understand each other’s feelings, but it’s because they don’t understand their own.


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