The Larnachs by Owen Marshall review

by Elizabeth Alley / 25 June, 2011
The Larnachs is a sensitive, compassionate and discreet reworking of fact.
Owen Marshall is on the move again. Not that he has ever stood still for long. Widely regarded as one of our pre-eminent short-story writers, whose voice resonates through New Zealand small town and urban jungle alike, Marshall taught us to hear ourselves as we really are. If, for some, his novels have not consistently scaled quite the same literary pinnacle, they have always been thoughtful, original and written in the near-perfect prose style his wide readership appreciates.

With , he’s achieved a sensitive, compassionate and discreet re­creation of a story that, in less able hands, could well have faltered.

In this fictional reworking of historical fact, Marshall takes the skeleton of the true story of William Larnach, squire of Larnach Castle and respected member of Parliament, his marriage to third wife Conny and her scandalous love affair with his son Douglas, culminating in William’s suicide in the Parliament Buildings. The familiar setting of Larnach Castle, with its large well-appointed estate, within the social fabric of colonial settlement in Otago and Wellington, provides a strong sense of reality and is the refined background against which Marshall imagines the unfolding of the doomed love affair. Interspersed are vivid glimpses of Richard Seddon and William Massey and the acerbic wider Larnach family.

Marshall’s voice has always had an elegant restraint, and, sensitive to the potential for this story to erupt into pure melodrama, he has pitched it perfectly.

On the face of it, this is a risky construct. Very little happens. Social life on the peninsula and political life in Wellington go on as normal. The tensions of the story rest entirely on the diminishing relationship between William and Conny and the developing passion between Conny and her stepson. There is minimal dialogue, and only the two counterbalanced narrative voices of Dougie and Conny, each recording their growing desperation and determination against a growing background of hostility and rumour that simmers throughout the genteel colonial province like a growing virus. In that it is filtered through these two voices, the full scandalous drama of the affair is more muted than sensational, but that seems entirely compatible with the protective carapace that surrounded the socially powerful.

The tragic outcome is historical fact, but the story is also a moving reflection on the nature of love amid the social constraints of the time. It was a story just waiting to be written. Thank goodness it was Marshall who wrote it.

THE LARNACHS, by Owen Marshall ­(Vintage, $39.99).

Elizabeth Alley is a ­Wellington reviewer.
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