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At the Grand Glacier Hotel
by Laurence Fearnley

Nature is volatile and isolating in an evocative novel 'aimed at the senses'.

By June 21, 2024No Comments

The fictional map of Dunedin writer Laurence Fearnley is marked out by walking poles, tramping boots, packs and raincoats. In The Hut Builder (2010), a snowstorm forces two unlikely characters into the intimacy of a snow cave on the flank of Mt Cook; in Winter Time (2022), the central character is gripped physically and psychologically in a monochrome whiteout in Lake Tekapo. In both books, the landscape is thrilling, threatening and beautifully, evocatively, portrayed.

In Fearnley’s new book, At the Grand Glacier Hotel, we are on the West Coast. Damp, green, glistening. Dark with storm clouds or bathed in shards of light. Libby Holt is holed up in a historic hotel in a fading tourist town. She is recovering from surgery and radiotherapy following a diagnosis of sarcoma, a rare cancer of the bones and soft tissues. A much-needed holiday to the West Coast with her husband Curtis goes awry when the road from Wānaka, where Curtis has had to return for a lost pair of glasses, back to the hotel is blocked.

In this marooned environment, away from family and friends, Libby is joined by a disparate cast of characters. Kendrick, the Esperanto-speaking hotel owner, funding the search for the elusive South Island kōkako; Ella, working furiously on her thirtieth novel based on the female characters of old westerns (a bit like a character in The Shining, says one of the occupants, and, in the empty corridors of this large, remote, half-empty hotel, the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s 1977 novel does spring to mind); and gentle James, Kendrick’s stepson, a trainee surgeon taking time out to try and authenticate the rumoured sightings of the mysterious kōkako.

As in the two earlier books, nature, in all its volatility, dominates the story. A storm barrels across the region, cutting power and road access. Bridges shudder over rising waters, bloated cows float down the swollen river, tumbled boulders roar and grind, rain sheets down in obfuscating falls.

The dramatic weather, punctuated by the sudden beauty of a sodden, glistening, puddled world, isolates Libby from friends and family – no one can get in, she can’t get out – but this pervasive sense of isolation is also shaped by her experience of cancer diagnosis, treatment and recuperation.

Fearnley takes us into the nuances of pain, from a whipping rip of agony to a relentless dull clamp to ‘a mess of tingling pins and needles’. She describes the overwhelming exhaustion, the daily indignities of radiotherapy – the pulled apart shorts, the modesty cloth, the technicians carefully avoiding eye contact – and, behind her breezy ‘I’m fine’, the unutterable thoughts of death: ‘I hadn’t told Curtis – or anyone, including my doctors – that I spent every hour of every day dying. It was the undercurrent to all my other thoughts and actions, so that even when I seemed engrossed in some other activity, my mind was still throbbing with thoughts of death.’

Now recovering from leg surgery, her disability provokes an overwhelming sense of aloneness, a sadness that is manageable when alone but ‘unbearably painful when faced with happy, able-bodied people, moving around at ease. It wasn’t loss; it was loneliness.’

Fearnley knows her topic – she was diagnosed with a tumour in her leg in 2020 – but just as Libby carefully avoids potential walking hazards, Fearnley avoids emotional hand-wringing or brooding self-pity. At the Grand Glacier Hotel is quietly sanguine, matter-of-fact, funny even as Libby negotiates an ungainly, and painful, transfer out of a bath; falls into a ditch; hits her head as she focusses on each lumbering footfall; watches a dancing fantail with a kind of wonder: ‘Nothing tied it down. Certainly not its body’.

But, in this cloistered location, separated from home and family, she is relieved of the expectation not to confront the emotional toll of the previous months. As she admits to herself, ‘We never talked about it. Not once did we sit down and talk seriously about our feelings, or our fears. We chatted about cancer, the treatment, the cure, the mess of it all, but never the emotions.’

This is the third of Fearnley’s novels aimed at the senses, following on from Scented (smell) and Winter Time (touch). This book is built on the experience of sound. In Dunedin, convalescing from surgery, Libby tunes into the reassuring noises of her suburban environment: the chattering sparrows, the ‘rasping slide’ of the green finches, the banging of the neighbour’s car door, the idling engine of the courier van – the reassuring if ‘banal regularity’ of the street’s schedule. On the Coast, as the rain hammers and the thunder booms, there’s also the quiet listening out for the call of tūī, kōtare, pīwakawaka, even, in a sanctuary in Ōkārito, the call of the rowi, our rarest kiwi.

The sensory angle is not pushed too hard – without reading the Author’s Note readers would probably never know. Even the plot, a series of mysterious clues that takes James and Libby on a challenging course through bush and village, seems largely inconsequential to the larger story of Libby’s physical and emotional rehabilitation.

But this, set within the extraordinary environment of south Westland, is a riveting account of human frailty told with clarity and insight. In a few brushstrokes, she paints the relationship between Libby and Curtis, and their daughter Hannah, with utter plausibility – the shared humour, the anticipated laughter, the easy silences, the familiarity of daily routines, but also the barely stated relief of having the opportunity to confront the experience of loss, fear, pain within the dramatic isolation of the Grand Glacier Hotel. Here, alone, in a different town, cut off from everyone she knew, ‘I felt safe. And I hadn’t experienced that for a long time.’

The book relies heavily on actual places and events. Franz Josef, the small town straddling the alpine fault, where long-skirted women once trudged across the ice, ‘their faces obscured by large-brimmed and veiled hats that sat on their heads like meringues’, to experience the extraordinary power of the glacier, now just a small rag of retreating white barely visible from the hotel. The 2019 flooding of the Fox River and the 2021 flood that closed the Ashburton bridge, the ongoing search for the South Island kōkako, the loss of foreign tourists during the pandemic that closed cafes, emptied shelves and revealed cracks in the asphalt where the tour buses used to park.

But it is in this near forsaken village, that Libby, still lashed by pain, finds her place to stand. She goes to a screening of Incubus, the 1966 American horror movie starring William Shatner filmed entirely in Esperanto; she attends a performance of a canzona written by Douglas Lilburn; she swims in the lagoon as the morning mist rises; she explores the tunnels above the township, blasted through bedrock to supply water to the early gold diggings. Cold, wet, far from home, her head bleeding from an encounter with a hanging rock, she says in wonder, ‘I was hurrying down a soaking wet and muddy path. I was here.’ Sound and secret messages aside, At the Grand Glacier Hotel is an evocative account of fear, wonder and quiet survival.

At the Grand Glacier Hotel

by Laurence Fearnley


ISBN: 9781776950638

Published: June 2024

Format: Paperback, 288 pages

Sally Blundell

Sally Blundell is a journalist, writer and reviewer based in Ōtautahi Christchurch.