Love as a Stranger - review

by John McCrystal / 06 May, 2016

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

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.

Latest

Father figure: Jordan Watson on his 'How to Dad' series
93157 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

Father figure: Jordan Watson on his 'How to Dad' s…

by North & South

The breakout Youtube star talks about 'How to Dad', paternity leave, and his own dad.

Read more
With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?
93834 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z World

With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?…

by Paul Thomas

The US President treats his Western allies to a tongue-lashing while cosying up to Vladimir Putin, causing alarm at home and around the world.

Read more
Who Is America? is predictably alarming – and scarily relevant
93831 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z Television

Who Is America? is predictably alarming – and scar…

by Diana Wichtel

Only Bernie Sanders comes out unscathed in Sacha Baron Cohen’s absurdist new series Who Is America?

Read more
Organic wine is getting bigger in New Zealand. These are our top picks
93885 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z Wine

Organic wine is getting bigger in New Zealand. The…

by Michael Cooper

Quality rather than quantity drives New Zealand's organic wine producers.

Read more
Killer robots: The question of how to control lethal autonomous weapons
93876 2018-07-20 08:23:45Z Tech

Killer robots: The question of how to control leth…

by Peter Griffin

The computer scientist who has become a leading voice on the threat posed by killer robots describes himself as an “accidental activist”.

Read more
The man who's making sure performing artists are seen in the regions
93813 2018-07-20 00:00:00Z Theatre

The man who's making sure performing artists are s…

by Elisabeth Easther

For 35 years, Steve Thomas has been at the helm of Arts On Tour, taking musical and theatrical acts from Kaitaia to Stewart Island.

Read more
The Eco Economy: Millennials, money and saving sustainably
93645 2018-07-20 00:00:00Z Economy

The Eco Economy: Millennials, money and saving sus…

by Sharon Stephenson

Millenials are leading the rise of the eco economy.

Read more
Cuba Libre is a new Caribbean-influenced restaurant-bar in Ponsonby
93862 2018-07-19 15:05:51Z Auckland Eats

Cuba Libre is a new Caribbean-influenced restauran…

by Kate Richards

Rum, cigars and Cuban sandwiches are on the menu at new Ponsonby restaurant, Cuba Libre.

Read more