I sometimes think there's a distinct South Island literary style. Owen Marshall, Brian Turner, Fiona Farrell, Maurice Gee: there's a measured pace about their cadences and characters; a gravity of tone, yet with an undercutting irreverence; an engagement with the wide, framing physical landscape that you don't seem to find so often north of Cook Strait. Those qualities of people defined against a physical environment, decisions made soberly rather than spontaneously, an existence closer to the bone, are also among the underpinnings of Dunedin-based Laurence Fearnley's accomplished new novel.

Fearnley has always been fascinated by the choices people make, and Reach is full of her close, meticulous observations of the tensions between and within individuals, backgrounded by those between the same individuals and their setting.

So we have Quinn, focused to the point of obsession on her edgy artworks of empty uterus, enigmatic hands or birds of prey; indifferent, even brutal towards others; not giving a stuff about the neighbourhood; content to hold a non-locking gate open with a brick.

And we have Marcus the vet, wrecking his marriage to be with Quinn, now in a slow-motion rebound towards resentment, watching himself flounder as he struggles to keep contact with his hurt, estranged daughter.


Plus there's the complicating presence of itinerant, risk-taking Callum in his inconsiderately parked housetruck, a deep-water diver with an existence of few essentials, forever startled at people's indelicacy towards his beautiful sea.

The boldly drawn character arcs of all three lead through conflicts, commitments, career crises, towards an ending of hard-won, satisfying reconciliation in various forms and varying degrees.

It all happens in an insistently immediate world. A pine tree explodes in a fireball; a trapped shag struggles to live; the sweet, dusty scent of dew evaporates from gorse and broom; an underseas rock wall is jewelled with anemone. Through her protagonists, Fearnley continually acknowledges the sheer force of natural life.

It's an authentically contemporary world as well. Every art exhibition requires a Health and Safety Plan; the "soy-milk fluffy revolution" is underway at local cafes; women gallery owners dress "like cupcakes". And it's flecked with sly, noir humour - what does one wear to look one's best after a suicide attempt?

Quinn dominates the novel, challenging and endlessly enquiring, tired yet indomitable, proud but lanced with self-doubt. She's an individual; she's legion. Fearnley can feel proud of her. You do sometimes wonder how she and Marcus ever stay together, but the crackle and compulsion between them powers much of the book.

The writing is lucid, unassuming, sometimes leaning towards the laconic. ("They made a deal that they wouldn't have kids. She didn't want them.") Yes, very South Island, and at the same time, resonant with subdued lyricism.

A few characters drop off abruptly. A few sections tread rather than stride. But Laurence Fearnley respects her people and readers, while making demands on them both. That's always satisfying.

by Laurence Fearnley
(Penguin $38)

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.