Love as a Stranger - review

by John McCrystal / 06 May, 2016
Owen Marshall. Photo/David White

A new novel from Owen Marshall shows his mastery of the mechanics of the human condition.

Someone recently remarked that people who don’t read novels aren’t to be trusted, because it is the essential human quality of empathy that draws us to read about the experiences of hypothetical others. By implication, those who can resist the charms of fiction are deficient in empathy and best avoided.

It is through the eye of a supremely empathetic god that Owen Marshall narrates his excellent latest novel Love as a Stranger. We are favoured with a view of the inner lives of two people as they find themselves fated to reiterate one of the oldest human stories.

Sarah and Hartley – she nearing 60, he already there – meet by chance in the Symonds St cemetery close by the grave of Emily Keeling, whose murder in a crime of passion shocked Aucklanders in 1886. That would have been it, had chance not nudged them together again. But it does, and they talk and laugh together and click, as the saying goes, and although Sarah is married and her husband has a significant illness, they drift into an affair.

Before we judge the characters, we are invited first to understand them, and – to paraphrase Philip Larkin – the key to understanding human beings is to know their backgrounds. Hartley’s neediness and impetuosity makes perfect sense when set against the emotional deprivation he suffered growing up as the son of a dour, narrow-minded farmer. The future he glimpses with Sarah represents his first and last real shot at enjoying the kind of happiness to which, we are accustomed to suppose, everyone is entitled. It is easy to understand his desperation to make it so.

Marshall draws his characters and their world with his usual fine brush-strokes, so that they meet the eye with almost photographic realism. It’s deceptively simple: Hartley’s cold, hard upbringing is captured in the image of “the primary school football [that] was always too heavy to kick over the bar”. Another character’s abrasive aggression is caught along with his appearance with the observation that he had “a ploughshare for a nose”. And the profound understanding of how the undercurrents of our personalities are mirrored on the surface is beautifully depicted in a vignette where Hartley (a lawyer) is dealing with one of his clients when thoughts of Sarah lighten his mood, such that the client imagines it is her own story, her own personality, perhaps even her own appearance that is making an impression.

But it is empathy that is the engine of Marshall’s fiction, which enables him to make statements about the human condition that resound with the authority of aphorism. His strongest work has always been informed by a sense of the paradoxical emptiness and richness of ordinary lives, of the sheer pleasure of being in spite of death and all its negations. Poor Emily Keeling’s final words were reportedly: “Love me, I am dying”, uttered to the stranger who was succouring her. And that is the appeal at the heart of this novel, and in the end, at the heart of the human condition.

LOVE AS A STRANGER, by Owen Marshall (Vintage, $38)

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