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The quiet unspectacular: wanting but failing to like new New Zealand fiction

Wyoming Paul reviews two new New Zealand novels by women authors. She enjoys one but the other one leaves her cold.

Debra Daley’s The Revelations of Carey Ravine and The Quiet Spectacular by Laurence Fearnley are both written by women and celebrate women. In Fearnley’s case, I wanted – but failed – to like a New Zealand novel which focuses on women, their interior lives and their day-to-day hardships. With Debra Daley’s book, I was happily swept up by the entertaining and intriguing tale, and the ballsy heroine.

Set in colourful and dirty 1771 London, the backdrop of Daley’s novel includes the glitter and corruption of new money, the build-up to the opium wars, and the decline of the East India Company. The heroine is Carey Ravine, a young woman struggling to keep up the appearance of class while her husband Nash spends her money on new clothes and expensive furniture, attempting to find favour with wealthy and corrupt men.

Carey is living a small, artificial life – until she stumbles upon a mysterious dossier in Nash’s belongings. It recounts “A Case of Poisoning” in India, and implicates powerful British businessmen and politicians, as well as those closest to her.

“Dare to know!”, Carey writes to herself in a notebook. Her decision to follow her own advice leads her to doubt her way of life, her marriage, and the ideas she holds about her past.

What makes the novel so enjoyable is the brightness and colour of it all. The characters and the setting feel real, complex and gritty. Carey herself at first appears to be shallow and materialistic, blurring the less palatable parts of her life with shopping, sex, and alcohol. But many characters in the book are not who they seem to be, and Carey turns out to be an intelligent and curious young woman, who has had to be resilient to cope with the many tragedies in her life.

Carey’s story is about being strong and doing what you think is right, even when it’s difficult and dangerous. It’s also about letting go of the people who you love when you realise that they don’t deserve your affection.

There’s just the right amount of bodice ripping and political scheming to keep you entertained. As a romance, a mystery, and historical fiction, The Revelations of Carey Ravine is a satisfying and cockles-warming read.

*

As for The Quiet SpectacularUsually, I’m a very slow reader. When there’s a passage in a book which I enjoy – a beautiful description, say, or interesting dialogue – I’ll stop, and and read it again, and mull it over. But I read Fearnley’s book very fast. There were few passages which I thought were beautiful, or interesting, or in need of mulling.

Loretta, Chance and Riva are three ordinary women making their way through the stresses of daily life in the rural South Island. Mother and divorcee Loretta experiences constant worry about finances and when her youngest child will choose to leave her. Teenaged Chance is struggling to cope with her cold and sometimes cruel mother, go-kart obsessed brothers and father, and sense of separation from her peers. Riva is grieving the death of her sister while fighting to save the wetlands she loves, and worrying that she will not fulfill her promise to do “something spectacular” on the fourth anniversary of her sister Irene’s death.

Each woman finds peace and space from their normal lives in a den built in the wetlands, and as they get to know one another, they find sanctuary in one another’s company.

This is a quiet novel with glimmers of humour and intrigue. There’s a powerful scene when Chance’s awful mother Trudy intentionally shames her in front of a market vendor, and Shannon’s description of scraping dog poo from a veranda before an unattended open home is welcome light relief.

Unfortunately, much of the book falls flat. Loretta’s project of renaming each place in the South Island after a woman, presumably meant to suggest that she’s a creative feminist, feels hollow. In the same way, Chance’s complaint that she isn’t like a “normal girl” because she doesn’t use makeup and listen to Taylor Swift is a thin attempt to create a young character.

There are important themes and issues at work, but not a lot of weight, or emotional depth.


The Revelations of Carey Ravine (Hachette, $34.99) by Debra Daley and The Quiet Spectacular (Penguin, $38) by Laurence Fearnley are both available at Unity Books.

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