Monday, August 29, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE HUT BUILDER” Laurence Fearnley (Penguin $40)

Yes, I know this is a cheat. Strictly speaking Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder is not “Something New”. It was published late last year and was extensively reviewed then. But as I admitted three weeks ago, when I covered the New Zealand Post Book Awards, it was the only one of the three finalists in the Fiction section that I hadn’t read. The other two finalists were Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining and Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Night Book, both of which I had read and admired.

And then, blow me down, it was the one I hadn’t read that won the prize. I said then that I would catch up with The Hut Builder as soon as I could, so here I now am, having done just that.

Laurence Fearnley has been much praised for her Edwin and Matilda, which I still haven’t read. Indeed the only two of her novels I had read prior to The Hut Builder were her first, Room (2000), set in an abortion clinic; and the more recent Mother’s Day (2009), about the everyday heroism of a woman struggling through low-paying jobs to keep her family together. It’s really a hymn to the Kiwi sheila as battler.

At least in part, The Hut Builder is also about low-key fortitude and forbearance which might amount to everyday heroism. Its protagonist Boden Black is the son of a butcher in Fairlie, who goes into the family trade. But he has greater things in mind than the constricted small-town existence this might imply.

First, when he was young, he took an interest in tramping and mountaineering and spent some weeks helping more experienced mountaineers build an alpine hut. That was in the early 1950s. The highpoint of the period was meeting Ed Hillary, already the conqueror of Everest, and climbing part of Mt Cook with him. This brief episode is the thing Boden’s Dad spends his lifetime boasting about to customers in his butcher-shop.

Second, responding to the wider South Island landscape of alps and Mackenzie Basin, and encouraged by at least one of his climbing companions, Boden Black discovers a talent for poetry, and tentatively submits some of it for publication.

This is a relatively new novel, so I’m loath to say more about its development beyond this basic set-up. It introduces as minor characters, or mentions in passing, some historical figures - not only Ed Hillary, but also the climbers Harry Ayres and Harry Scott, and the poet-and-editor Charles Brasch. In fact fictitious letters from the real Brasch are quoted, a technique which makes the historian in me feel a little uneasy.

The Hut Builder is narrated in the first person by Boden Black himself, and for most of its length this is one of its greatest stylistic assets. Laurence Fearnley mimics convincingly the voice of a diffident man, uncertain of his own talent and frequently abashed by the contrast between his status as a butcher and his poetic impulse. “You don’t seem the poetry type”, he is told by a girl in a Christchurch bookstore. Outwardly he is such a conformist.

The first-person narration also stays appropriate to a man who was born in the mid-1930s and grows to old age and its reminiscences. Boden has the reticence of his age and upbringing. There is much in his emotional life that he does not tell us. When, late in the novel, he makes one (fleeting and quite mild) sexual reference, it is almost shocking.

The Hut Builder does well in suggesting the toll of time, and the way the older man’s views on places he loves have changed from the views of his younger self. Fearnley also avoids the cliché of depicting an artistic young man thwarted by unsympathetic parents and family. Boden’s old Dad is puzzled, but quite sympathetic, about his son’s writing.

At the risk of seeming to carp, though, there are some things in this novel that don’t work for me. Without giving away later plot developments, I found some of the revelations about Boden’s family and background a little pat. You can feel the author’s thumb pressing characters to do and say things, so that they will fit in with her themes about broken and enduring family relationships.

The less appealing parts of the narrative are where Fearnley comes close to preaching. One influential person in Boden’s life is a man who was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Boden learns from him to question values he had once taken for granted. But isn’t this simply asking us to admire what it is now commonplace to admire? Peace-mongers are pop icons in nuclear-free NZ. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have, as Boden’s mentor, a sympathetic chap who went through agonies of conscience before deciding that it was right to fight against Hitler. (There were such people). I admit, however, that this would have made it difficult to introduce into the action Ed Hillary’s conscientious objector brother.

More problematic is something The Hut Builder has in common with a number of novels about fictitious artists. We have to take it on trust that the main character is a good poet. At one stage we are told Boden Black wrote the third-most-often-anthologised New Zealand poem, beating out Baxter’s High Country Weather. The novel leads up to his being invited to write and read a poem on a public occasion, and his confidence is bolstered when people tell him how good it is.

Whenever I see that sort of claim made for a fictitious character, I recall how the naughty GBS, in one of his plays, presented his hero as a writer of genius…. and then for the printed version of the play GBS wrote some of his hero’s works to prove how true this claim was! I am very, very sorry, but for me there is a very false note in telling us that a fictitious character is a very good poet, and making so much in the novel depend on it. It comes close to Mr Holland’s Opus territory. I want to see the poems and judge for myself!

What I’m really giving here, then, is a mixed report. I enjoyed reading The Hut Builder very much, but I was not astounded by it.

The overwhelming question is – had I been a judge, would I have given it the NZ Post award for Fiction?

The answer is a definite maybe.

Footnote. By way of comparison with my reaction, you could check out Ruth Nichol’s review of The Hut Builder in the Winter 2011 issue of New Zealand Books. On the whole, Nichol seems only half-hearted about the novel, although she says some positive things. She does comment on the “formal, rather stuffy” prose of the narrator. Siobhan Harvey conducts an interview with Laurence Fearnley in the 16 July issue of the NZ Listener which you can find at the Listener site on-line. Fearnley explains how her own experiences of the South Island shaped the novel. This does not amount to a review, however.

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