Review — At the Grand Glacier Hotel, by Laurence Fearnley

Reviewed by Jackie Lee Morrison

‘A tender and beautifully written story about learning to live again. The writing is gently humorous, while also tinged with a deep sense of loss… June 2024 release

Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel, At The Grand Glacier Hotel, is a tender and beautifully written story about learning to live again. The writing is gently humorous, while also tinged with a deep sense of loss, having you laughing one moment, and feeling a sucker-punch in the next.

Nearly 20 years after a nightmarish family holiday and following a year battling cancer, Libby and husband Curtis have finally returned to the West Coast of the South Island for a getaway, and to indulge in a stay at the majestic Grand Glacier Hotel. A misplaced pair of glasses and torrential weather takes Curtis away to Wānaka, isolating Libby in the hotel. She starts to explore her surroundings, befriending the unusual staff and guests, and beginning to discover who she is post-cancer.

It’s hard to read this novel and not see Fearnley’s own life reflected back at you from its pages. Like her protagonist, Fearnley was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 — a tumour in her leg — in the middle of writing her 2022 novel Winter Time. Reading Libby’s experience of treatment, it’s clear this has come from real-life experience. It’s too raw, told with the brutality of an ex-patient coming to terms with their circumstances after such a life-changing event. Libby treats the unfortunate leg like an unruly pet — no longer a part of her but a thing she must placate: “You’re okay. It’s okay. You’re a good leg. Good leg. It’s okay.” (p.99)

While this is, inevitably, a book about cancer, it’s incredibly funny in parts, albeit darkly. Libby and husband Curtis banter back and forth to avoid saying anything real to one another, losing themselves in ‘what if’ scenarios and jabs. Even Libby notes that it’s funny, until it’s not. All the humour in the novel is edged with this same undercurrent of fear and sadness. At one point, Libby takes a bath but fails to consider how she’ll climb out of the tub with her unwieldy leg, resulting in her having to slide herself out on her front, carpet burns and all, until she “birthed [her]self onto the bathmat.” (p.142)

Libby makes for an interesting narrator and character. She often falls a little too far into navelgazing and finds herself easily bored in the company of others, preferring to meander through her own thoughts. She’s dishonest, both with herself and others, using humour to deflect, though with little success. Yet there’s something about her that’s still likeable, and her tenacity grounds even her most flighty moments. Readers may be split on this point, however. Perhaps I’m just a fan of unreliable narrators.

This book marks the third in Fearnley’s series about the five senses, this time tackling sound, and boy, is this a book full of sound. A cacophony of noise is everywhere — from the opening chapters detailing how Libby’s young toddler turned their family holiday into a vomit-filled nightmare (I have never read so many pages about projectile vomit), to the calls of nature surrounding the Grand Glacier Hotel, to the beeps and hushed tones of the hospital Libby has been in and out of for the last year. It’s layered intricately, delicately, serving as a reminder that Libby, among all this sound, is isolated and lost.

While I’m new to Fearnley’s work, it’s clear to see why she has so many accolades to her name. This is a very distinctly New Zealand book, set in a place already past its glory days, and Fearnley says so much about the country we live in and the effects of climate change, without acknowledging it so explicitly. Instead, this sense of loss is woven into the fabric of the novel and her characters, but not without hope for the future. This is New Zealand writing at its best.

Reviewed by Jackie Lee Morrison