- October 21, 2022
Step out your door after a day’s heavy snow in central Otago and you will be surprised. Surprised by how deep your foot sinks in, surprised by the required recalibration of the ground in front of you, surprised how newly strange the landscape appears. Even if you know the layout of the land, a smooth, white blanket of snow can be disconcerting. In a snowstorm that erases the horizon, obliterates the sun and throws your sense of direction, of course, it is alarming.
Laurence Fearnley’s new novel Winter Time — her twelfth in just 24 years — is like this in more ways than one.
First, in a very literal sense. We are in Tekapo in the heart of the McKenzie, a small settlement tweaked around the edges to be the fictitious town of Matariki. It is winter; it is bitterly cold. Fearnley paints her mid-winter Otago landscape with extraordinary vividness and veracity (she lives in Dunedin; she did her PhD thesis on the literature of mountaineering; much of her award-winning 2010 novel The Hut Builder is set on the slopes of Aoraki Mt Cook). There is a magic in this wintertime world, in the crunch of snow, the sparkle of a hoar frost, the milky green lake, ‘its surface as still as polished stone’, and the endless depths of the McKenzie Basin’s night sky: ‘In a place like the McKenzie, the stars touched the land, and enfolded the earth. There was a pronounced sense of the circular, spinning world. If you stood outside at night, the stars appeared to move, and cross the sky, never still, always shifting, one following the other in a constant migration.’ But where the mountain landscape of The Hut Builder loomed in dramatic sublimity, here there is a more insinuating, claustrophobic quality in the smudged horizon, the fractured visibility and the swirling snow flurries. Wrapped in winter, life in the small town is marked by the dispiriting recurrence of frozen waterpipes, blocked culverts, the blinded windows of the holiday homes and Airbnbs yawning across former residential streets and new subdivisions.
This sense of creeping unease extends into the chilled air of the former family home of Fearnley’s main character, Roland March.
Roland lives in an upmarket terraced home in Sydney where he and his partner Leon run Kernel, a wholefood café and health store. He has been called back to the place of his childhood following the recent death of his younger and much-loved brother Eddie. Within two pages we realise this is the last of a litany of family tragedies — by page 10 the author has ticked off the death of Roland’s mother (a long illness), father (a short illness), his only sister Casey (melanoma), her twin brother Isaac (presumed drowned), and now Eddie, who appears to have lost control of his ute and plunged into the hydro canal. But suspicion rankles. Eddie was a careful driver, and he knew the road backwards — how did his car end up in the lake? Who is behind the social media comments, posted under Roland’s name, stirring up antipathy between the trophy hunting fraternity and those, like Eddie, contracted by the Department of Conservation to cull the deer population? Who is Holly, the author of a letter found amongst Eddie’s belongings? And why does Bay, one of the few people to offer a hand of friendship to Roland, have no online presence whatsoever?
Like the obfuscating swirls of mist and snow, these questions cloud Roland’s lonely nights and solitary bike rides, triggering uncertainty and understandable fear.
But his return to the family home also brings back memories of his own anxious childhood. These memories are rooted in the alpine environment — the long grip of winter, the build-up of ice on the inside of the bedroom window, school bus trips spent trying to rub some heat into toes frozen under gumboot socks. But hunkering down in the empty house, plagued by the disturbing questions surrounding Eddie’s death and the fake Facebook posts, Roland is also beset by the weight of a more personal history: his father’s disdain, his mother’s illness, the weight of responsibility as the oldest child. Growing up gay in small-town New Zealand, with little interest in sport or hunting, he was alone in his anxiety, daunted by his father’s impatience and his siblings’ daring. He was the quiet child, fearful, ‘whiny’ says acerbic neighbour Mrs Linden. Returning to Matariki to organise Eddie’s funeral and belongings ‘brought back that grief and sense of isolation. Now, though, there was no one to share this moment with, no one to hug him and tell him it would be all right.’
That sense of isolation, not uncommon in Fearnley’s books, shroud the characters of Winter Time as much as the low cloud and blinding snow. Eddie’s death, even Isaac’s death before him; Leon’s impatience; the flippancy of Leon’s friends; the brittle demeanour of Mrs Linden; the sincerity of Bay’s friendship — all become infused with a chilling, shifting uncertainty that demarcates Roland’s aloneness. There are moments of tenderness — Roland’s observations of his older lover’s ageing body is poignant in its attentiveness. There are also moments of awkwardness — a leaking wheatbag in the middle of a café when Roland and Bay first meet hits an odd note. But overall Roland stands alone, as if outlined against the wintry landscape, watchful and unsure.
In her author’s note Fearnley explains that this is the second of her novels based on the senses — after Scented in 2019, this one, she says, is concerned with touch. This sensory theme does not come through strongly, nor are all the questions that plague Roland during his time in Matariki resolved. But Winter Time is nevertheless a strong and compelling yarn from an accomplished writer. Like the precarious promise of that first step into deep snow, Fearnley pulls the reader into her story with a deft and inescapable grip that keeps you peering into the plot, arms out in front to keep your place in the narrative, to the last page.