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)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

How to lose weight without a diet
87141 2018-02-25 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to lose weight without a diet

by Jennifer Bowden

"The irony is the intentional pursuit of weight loss – dieting, in other words – is actually a predictor of future weight gain."

Read more
Baby boomers are rethinking retirement for a later-life reboot
87313 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Social issues

Baby boomers are rethinking retirement for a later…

by Sally Blundell

The biggest cohort of baby boomers is reaching retirement age – and many are not planning a quiet dotage.

Read more
School shootings and Russian indictments
87455 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z World

School shootings and Russian indictments

by Joanne Black

Slaughter in a school and Russian social-media mischief: the US is under siege.

Read more
Beck to go back to basics at Auckland City Limits
87417 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Profiles

Beck to go back to basics at Auckland City Limits

by James Belfield

Before headlining Auckland City Limits, Beck talks about celebrating his musical past on stage and on record.

Read more
Islands of the Gulf: How the Hauraki has changed
87427 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Television

Islands of the Gulf: How the Hauraki has changed

by Fiona Rae

A broadcaster revisits her mother’s iconic Islands of the Gulf TV series to see what’s changed since the 60s.

Read more
Hokianga's Wild West fest's unusual way of fundraising
86388 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Hokianga's Wild West fest's unusual way of fundrai…

by Peter De Graaf

Once a year, the Wild West saddles up and rides into Waimamaku for a day of highway robbery.

Read more
Back on track: $60m to go into regional rail
87519 2018-02-23 14:43:30Z Economy

Back on track: $60m to go into regional rail

by Jane Patterson

Five regions will receive just over $60 million for rebooting rail in the first chunk of money from the Provincial Growth Fund.

Read more
Ricky Houghton is about finding innovative solutions to the issues facing Māori
87510 2018-02-23 14:21:31Z Profiles

Ricky Houghton is about finding innovative solutio…

by Clare de Lore

No government on their own can fix the problems facing Māori in the Far North, warns Local Hero of the Year Ricky Houghton.

Read more