Owen Marshall: "No other New Zealand writer has put so much of our particular, doggy little lives into the context of the human condition." Photo by Graeme Sydney, from the Academy of New Zealand Literature site

“New Zealand’s best prose writer” – Vincent O’Sullivan’s assessment opens Owen Marshall’s latest collection of stories Return to Harioka Bay, and brings to mind Sue McCauley’s: “He’s not just the finest short story writer we have, but the finest we have ever had.” This, in the land of KM! And beyond, too: I remember the rock star welcome Marshall received from a group of Danish visitors at a specially-arranged reading some years back – a burst of excitement as he entered the room – “Here he is!” – as they stood, applauded, mobbed him; Owen was at his modest aw-shucks best. All that in boring old pre-quake Christchurch, where the biggest news was usually about ducks holding up traffic in Worcester Street.

There is such a thing as an “Owen Marshall story”. Because he is deeply aware of the enigmatic nature of our lives, Marshall has always seemed happy to set a mood or a tone in a story and leave it at that. There’s something of this in “Other People”, from Return to Harikoa Bay, where a man is watching what seems to be a rather Kierkegaardian cat: “He supposed that cats had no existentialist dilemma: that for them, ‘Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced’.” There is much of the feel of this in Return to Harioka Bay. The predominant mood is reflective, a kind of musing on the ways people live and have lived, on the passage of time and the pastness of the past.

Some stories have that stoical, detached quality, but without quite the same remorselessness of parts of his earlier collections. “The Undertaker’s Story” shows us a mortician who witnesses a man hitting his wife and, deciding that subsequent abuse has caused her death, stuns the man, injects him with formaldehyde, and sets off to bury him somewhere in Southland: “I love the smell of the wet bush and the calls of the birds in it”, he tells us. He has a body-bag ready in his car – as you do. At times it feels as if the author isn’t really there – as if the story has just happened, somehow. But he’s there alright, quietly pulling the strings, making sure the tone carries the story.

The same unpredictable, untrustworthy world is present but, crucially, written in a different key – with a deep, controlled compassion and poignancy – in “Dancing on Another Planet”, where the narrator’s mate’s oddball kid sister, given to bouts of spontaneous solo dancing when hanging around her brother’s peer-group gang, is humiliated and booted out by one of nature’s budding oafs, departs – and is never seen again. Gulp. In “Giving the Finger” there’s a man who cuts off his own finger after a threatening dream – that’s all – no need for more – and in “Frost Flowers” a poignant, wistful story of a mother whose son is condemned to a foreshortened life in a wheelchair. There’s a glimpse of the unending hostility of the world in “Running Bear”, where a school bully gets his comeuppance, except that, against the usual expectations, he goes on fighting to the end: a prick, but, disappointingly, a heroic prick.

Marshall brings us the first character I know of in our fiction to have a colostomy bag

“What Eddy Sees” treats helpless subjectivity in a different key, by means of a transcript of a police interrogation; shifting key again, and form, “The Penguin Cup” shows a man’s sudden death in a bookshop – in life is death. “Night Nurse” tells something of the intimacy between nurse and patient in the aftermath of what’s known to insiders as the old man’s operation: brilliant, compact, almost Proustian in its evocation of time past (or, possibly, pissed; check out the ruby-coloured bag on page 42). Two compact, brilliantly-rendered pages of the-body-as-subject, and then one more: “Behind the Scenes” brings us the first character I know of in our fiction to have a colostomy bag (and makes me think of Billy Connolly’s peerless assertion that the hardest part of having one is finding shoes to match).

“Rue de Paradis” shows more of this change of emphasis, this quieter, more reflective mood. Rosalind is a self-reliant single woman who gets herself to Paris and experiences the usual things: do-you-speak-English, the disappointing hotel with cork tiles “especially stained in the cramped bathroom”, the snooty waiters, the sights, the shops. Surely something will go wrong, surely a maimed bird will fall? – and here, in effect, it comes: in the form of an Englishman who reminds her of a lost love. But: “You’re too old,” this twerp tells her. “If you’d been giving me the eye twenty-five years ago I’d have fucked you for sure”. Off she goes – and spots one of those Kierkegaardian cats, sunbathing outside, a reminder of what these stories are really about: here, the beautiful, expensive scent bottle she’s just acquired and which stands for all those things that money can’t buy. This is one of ten stories – nearly a third of this new collection – which focus particularly on women, opening up their lives to us, showing us who they are. My favourite is the one about the boy in the wheelchair I mentioned above: the mother’s love, given while she knows each day his light will soon go out. Tenderness, compassion, empathy, simple curiosity about the lives of those “other people” – anybody, everybody. The human being beneath the stereotype; the skull beneath the skin.

The title story stands out for the underplayed skill with which all of what might be called “the best of Owen Marshall” is brought together in one story. “Return to Harikoa Bay” is a reality to be experienced: an empty-nest couple (academic, accountant) return to the bay where they’ve spent several earlier holidays with their sons, and there, kids now gone, they work out the recasting – maybe the dissolution? – of their marriage. In a way it’s a more-fully-imagined development of that story about the undertaker: the mood is different, there are no injections of formaldehyde at Harikoa Bay but Ivan has betrayed Nicky in the past and now she’s planning a future of her own, which he can join on her terms if he wishes, or not. Slower than formaldehyde, but cheaper – a different tone, in other words, with the emotion of the story, the sense of loss and change, the remorse, caught almost entirely in the evocation of what is at risk, what might soon be gone: the bay’s beach cottages, its people, its things – but above all in the particularity of the bay itself, conveyed indelibly, unforgettably, of course, in that special quality of detail: “the smell of fish from old parkas by the door”; “bricks … placed at the base of the door to stop stuff blowing inside”; a “single white cloud, shaped like a cartoon bone drifting overhead”. Throughout, this thisness is stitched to the emotions of the characters and the growing sense of what’s being lost: “the straggly brown grass, the dark broom clumps and briar, the trios of small, violet butterflies that skirmished at head height”, observed as Nicky watches a younger version of herself walking away from her. It’s all through Return to Harikoa Bay, this ability to make a world live to greater purpose; in “Hikoi” (brothers explore their late dad’s boyhood home in Northland); “Family Ties” (gruff farmer dad and gay son); “Three women, One Morning” (women’s car breaks down on a rural road; new worlds open up, in full detail); and so on. Here, to me, is the heart of Marshall’s distinctive writing, the fully-imagined place where his mind lives. Palmerston South, Oamaru, Timaru, Ashburton, Tinwald, their extraordinary hinterland: Marshall’s tūrangawaewae – like Hardy’s Wessex, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawhpa.

Marshall is read by people beyond the usual enclaves where literature hides – the creative writing classes, the writing residencies, the literary festivals

Putting him in that company raises a question that has long been with me. Marshall has a quality distinctive in my experience: people read him. I mean the people beyond the usual enclaves where literature hides in our curious, increasingly virtualised literary culture – the reading groups, the creative writing classes, the writing residencies, the literary festivals, the prizes, around all of which our globalised literary economy is now formed. I mean the helper at my favourite local caff, the builder who updated our kitchen, the retired CEO who was off to the bookshop as soon as I told her OM had a new collection out. People like this “know” him and read him. He is part of their lives, he is “in” our lived culture, “ours” in the way KM still is: they both speak to the human condition as we live it. He reminds me most of the great Canadian writer Alice Munro: each of them is a writer readers treasure; for each of them, there’s a novel in every story.

Return to Harioka Bay has sent me back to memories of some of my OM favourites. There’s the magnificent, fully-imagined “Tomorrow We Save the Orphans” with its late-shift foreman who wears homemade armour to kill dogs at night, plus an unexplained moment when a maimed mallard duck plops down out of the night sky, bloodied and minus a leg (it “rolls on its side, almost like a cat, to have its stomach scratched”). There’s “Algebra’, where an uptight Kiwi citizen wades into the long grass of a vacant suburban section, curious about a hutch with neglected rabbits – then, a nasty voice: “Bob! Bob! We’ve caught the rabbit-killer.” Or, “The Rule of Jenny Pen”, in which a cretinous 81-year-old, sole hale-and-healthy inmate of a rest-home, torments his more vulnerable fellow-oldies – till they get together and stifle him in the linen-cupboard, keeping at it till they “had the smell of him”. Or (in a different key), in “Don’t Wake Beside Me”, old Baz (“Honk, honk”), tedious office co-worker who knows all 27 verses of “Eskimo Nell” and that “the angle of the dangle” depends “on the heat of the meat”. Honk, honk. Or (in “A Kind of Living”), the story of Budgie (so-called because of his “bunched features”) and his two blokey, unlikely-lad flatmates, who journey south to the lakes for their desolate annual holiday, all of it spent doggedly attempting to bonk two plump young puffer-jacketed women they meet in a pub. No luck, so they decide to return home: the car breaks down and Budgie is abandoned by his mates.

There is never a sense that he despises us. Sometimes he even seems to like us

When Marshall writes, the darkness surfaces in the comedy, the comedy surfaces in the darkness: somehow, something of each is always there. His writing derives from, and in turn also forms, a particular world familiar to anyone who has made the long, frequently unrewarding trek along State Highway 1 on the South Island’s east coast – to anyone who knows the generic Small New Zealand Town which seems to have inspired so much of our 20th Century writing. Marshall’s is a very particular version of it: provincials, predominantly Pākehā, reliable, fallible, fatuous, human. Marshall shows us where we all live, in an intensely observed, meticulously realised locale made not just of our rumpty little homes and shops and suburbs but of the extraordinary natural world we have been given to live in. His gaze is pithy and dispassionate: “a grave, olive skinned man eating a carrot and with eyes immensely wide apart” (“Algebra”); “the club monogram of his blazer yellowed with felt pen to hide the moth holes” (“Guest of Honour’); “a small, despicable man with semi-transparent ears and a hunger to witness the misfortune of others” (“At Boxit”); “he wrapped his lunch tin in the jacket of an old pinstripe suit, so the wire spring of the carrier would grip it safely. He took cold tea in a corked beer bottle, which he dangled at the handlebar in a grey woollen sock” (“Mr Tansley”). And so on: the human comedy, Kiwi version. Crucially, there is never a sense that he despises us. Sometimes he even seems to like us. More often than not, in some way we’re good for a laugh.

All this is part of a larger universe, brooding, forbidding, disconcerting – the yin to the comedy yang. OM understands the closeness of comedy and tragedy, and that they work together, can be understood only together. To some degree this darkness is present in all his stories, implicitly in some, more obviously in others. Marshall’s insistence on it gives his work its most distinctive mood and tone: anything can go wrong wherever you look, nothing is made plain. It’s the same vision that’s caught in the haunting first-edition cover of Frame’s Owls Do Cry, a novel set in what was destined to become Marshall’s world. It is a world so fully imagined and fully communicated that for the reader, it just is; it exists on its own terms – “so much detail in a world of things” is a marginal note I’ve found in one of my OM collections, “How does he know this sort of thing?” is in another. Reading what Marshall describes is like being there.

Surely no other New Zealand writer has had such a reach or put so much of our particular, doggy little lives into the context of the human condition. And surely none has been quite so comfortably at home as he is in the place where they live, or for whom it is such a natural thing to write about it. So much of our writing has been about outsiders; Marshall’s interest is in the rest of us, and in the outsider each of us anywhere in the world conceals in order to feign normality from day to day. Where KM found her art by leaving New Zealand, Marshall has discovered his by staying home and writing about it. He has never lived anywhere else; he has learned the trick of standing upright here – here: just a Kiwi, just a Kiwi writer. He is us, though we are not quite him: he is bigger than that. Read him wherever you are, though, and YOU ARE HERE.

Return to Harikoa Bay by Owen Marshall (Penguin Random House, $37) has been named by ReadingRoom as the best work of fiction of 2022, and is available as a Xmas present in bookstores nationwide. Tomorrow: Margie Thomson on the book she ghostwrote for Ruby Tui, the best bestseller of 2022, Straight Up.

Patrick Evans is the author of six novels, including Bluffworld (2021) and Gifted (2010), which re-imagines the 1955 relationship between New Zealand writers Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. His nonfiction...

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