The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley
Penguin, $40

With this review I want to declare two biases. I am a big fan of Laurence Fearnley's writing and particularly loved Edwin + Matilda. I am also a big fan of the Mackenzie Country - a place of miracles and unexpected epiphanies and an important setting in the early stages of Fearnley's new novel.

If you love a particular place, it is interesting the way in which you are instantly drawn to stories that are set there. Setting is an important part of The Hut Builder, but to me the novel is about character. All roads - plot, location, atmosphere, ideas, relationships - lead to character.

Boden Black is a young boy living in Fairlie in the early 1940s. He later becomes butcher, poet and hut builder. On the one hand he leads an ordinary life, making sausages and cutting slabs of meat, while on the other his life may be viewed as eventful and out-of-the-ordinary.

To begin with the young Boden finds himself a second family when his mother fades with grief. Boden moves in with the neighbours across the street to a house full of life, light and smiles in contrast to his own dismal place. Boden's first home is grey and speechless because his mother cannot get over the death of her first sons.

Like many of the novel's events, the experience of shifting families is a learning curve - you need light but you also need to acknowledge life's darknesses. To reside solely in one or the other is an unreal way of living.

Fearnley brings together a mix of the ordinary and the sublime - the routines of everyday life and the uplifting South Island landscape are the backdrop, the key and the catalyst to character development. But this enticing narrative fabric is pierced by thunderbolts and epiphanies.

There is the Tangiwai disaster that triggers Boden's father to disclose the unexpected detail that turns the boy's life upside down. There is the trip to the Mackenzie Country with his neighbour-father that fills him with awe and prompts him to write his first, faltering poem.

A trip to Christchurch on his newly purchased motorbike is a tentative attempt at risk and adventure. Boden finds himself in a bookshop, where he buys Allen Curnow's anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse.

At first the poetry seems impenetrable but after abandoning himself to an Ursula Bethell poem as he sleeps under the stars, the difficult lines open up to him. Risk and adventure are going to be of the poetic variety as he decides he wants "to be a poet too".

The Christchurch trip also sets him on a more tangible journey of risk and adventure. He joins a group of mountaineers to build a hut on a lower flank of Mt Cook. He finds himself trapped in a snow cave with the reserved Walter and blurts out his life story.

When Walter responds in kind, the effect is crushing. Fearnley illuminates the way the world values and views we inherit as children may be threatened and dislodged by those we encounter as adults. It is unfathomable to Boden that some people choose to not go to war.

There is an epic unfolding of personal stories between these two men, but there is also a continued vein of restraint. Boden clams up, and he also keeps everything at arm's length. The way he keeps Walter at a distance is the way he keeps his partner Stella at a distance, and his newly discovered sister.

This is both the novel's strength and weakness. The Hut Builder is the portrait of a man who wants both human intimacy and proximity to counter loneliness and emptiness. Fearnley captures his reserve perfectly, significantly, but at times I yearned for a greater emotional engagement.

The novel introduces the sorts of news - on several occasions - that can send you into a tailspin. Although Boden cries, smiles and feels utter confusion, I wasn't moved at a deep level.

Yet this was a character that haunted me. I was intrigued by the way he carried the past, the land and his relations with him, and his dilute reactions.

I also liked the way real people such as Sir Edmund Hillary (who climbed Mt Cook's Middle Peak with Boden) and Charles Brasch had parts to play that fitted seamlessly. One sign of the novel's lingering richness is in my reluctance to stop talking and thinking about it.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.