Love as a Stranger by Owen Marshall.
Auckland: Random House NZ Ltd. Vintage (2016).
Owen Marshall has a fine CV and readers of his latest novel, Love as a Stranger, are left in no doubt of his remarkable writing career which is well-outlined in the last twelve pages of the publication. Marshall’s main body of work would be his collections of short stories where his popularity as an author began in 1979, since when he has added poetry, editing, script writing and novels to his impressive repertoire.
Love as a Stranger is based on the infidelity of Sarah, married to Robert who is undergoing cancer treatment in Auckland. Sarah meets Hartley at the old Symonds St Cemetery whilst looking at the headstone of 17-year old Emily who was shot by her lover (who also killed himself) in 1886. Emily’s expiring words were: ‘Love me, I am dying’. Add to this quotation another from the front of the book by Spanish playwright, Pedro Calderon (1600-81), which intimates: ‘When love is not madness, it is not love’. Bearing these words in mind, we progress through the book anticipating insights about the possible truths encapsulated in these two citations, especially in relation to the novel’s central triangle.
The opening lines of Love as a Stranger form an irresistible hook: ‘People in love have a longing to tell others how they met, even if the circumstances are banal, or best suppressed. It’s an expression of their wonder, and gratitude for having found each other’ (p 13). Marshall continues with a convincing and evocative description of the Symonds Street Cemetery, as a site, perhaps, for both reflection on and re-assessment of time and life – particularly the grave of Emily ‘which had collapsed, as if the coffin had been spirited away and left a sunken rubble of concrete and bricks’ (p. 14). And, at a stroke, he conjures the wider environ: ‘Two stunted cabbage trees stood ineffectual guard, and the sun through the leaves made a play of harlequin patterns over it all’ (p 14). We are well-placed and most definitely in Auckland, Aotearoa.
From here, Sarah and Hartley’s affair progresses slowly. The reader is lulled into thinking that all is well and romance and excitement are building – as one might expect.
The novel appears to be character-driven. But my suspicions were aroused early with descriptions of Sarah, from Hartley’s point-of-view. Initially, on their second, possibly too contrived meeting, Sarah is: ‘… tall, smooth walking, a little overweight perhaps, but any excess carried on the breast and hip rather than the waist. Weight was important in his assessment of people’ (pp 16/17). At the graveside Sarah was ‘… still, full-figured, well-dressed’ (p 18). Later, at the café: ‘… her face, which had no deeply incised wrinkles, but rather showed the softness from many years of quality creams and moisturisers. Only at the base of her neck was there a gathering of soft, pale flesh…’ (p 27).
After they went ‘all the way’: ‘[Hartley] remembered the full breast rather than the faint arc of crease lines low on her belly, or the loose flesh at her hips.’ Then, surprisingly, we learn that ‘he loved it that her body was large, strong and well contoured…’ (p 55). Complex or cliched?
Sarah also has some entrenched ‘values’. We read: ‘Although Sarah had been in Auckland for many weeks, she still found it unusual that she shared it with so many Asian people. She hadn’t mentioned it to anyone except Robert before, in case it was thought that she resented their presence, but she was safe with Hartley’ (p 93). These snippets, for me, suggest that Sarah and Hartley truly deserve each other.
Around the central triangle changes of pace do deliver anxiety and suspense along with a good deal of satisfaction for the reader. The grammar is impeccable, the dialogue is formal, the style is informative. Yet despite these qualities, the result is a book that is plot- rather than character-driven and is permeated by a somewhat sedate, middle-aged atmosphere.
There is nothing staid about older people falling in love and creating new and exciting relationships. It is common. It can be extremely exhilarating and they can feel, act and seem like young lovers. Why then does Sarah and Hartley’s affair feel so reserved? Is this a deliberate Marshall tactic? Robert is a rather boring invalid; Sarah, we are told, is an overweight but presentable and dutiful woman and Hartley is an attractive widower who turns out to be an unexpected distraction for Sarah until she decides to end their affair.
Lovers of Marshall’s short and stimulating stories will, I think, be impatient with this work. Why? Each short chapter (and sometimes part of a chapter) reads like a perfect, complete short story – so much so that the sum of the chapters is far more than the book itself.
Love as a Stranger is well-presented with clear typography and an attractive, evocative cover. I expect conservative readers and ardent Marshall addicts will enjoy it.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies and has judged competition poetry.
First published takahe 87