The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Stories


Reviewed by Sarah Quigley.

The breathtaking precision and grace of Owen Marshall

A few years ago at a dinner in a Wellington cafe, I ended up sitting next to a physics student. Did we have enough in common to get through the next two hours? I couldn't read equations, but he was more versatile.


It turned out he was a closet short-story afficianado. His favourite author was Owen Marshall. We were immediately friends.


This is what Owen Marshall is: a writer who bridges gaps. He's one of our best-known short-story writers but he's not part of the literati glitterati and won't ever by seen baring his soul for the media. He saves that for his stories, which might be why he's gained such a wide readership.


His writing is down-to-earth without being earthy, full of sentiment but never sentimental. Basically, he achieves what every writer wants and not many manage: perfect balance.


This latest collection from Vintage gives us 67 of Marshall's best stories. In his brief introduction, Marshall describes the selection process as resting mostly on "merit", partly on theme.


Beginning with the wonderful Supper Waltz Wilson and ending up with the previously unpublished People We Know, the stories represent nearly 20 years of writing. But they give an impression of unity, because Marshall's vision has always been all-encompassing.


It's a heart-wrenchingly sad vision, and a side-splittingly funny one. It's wry yet compassionate.


And whether his characters date from 1979 or 1997, they're people we all recognise. Mr Thorpe trapped in his Papanui townhouse, Tucker Locke wavering between pride and despair over his extravagant new wife.


The simpler the characters, the greater the truths that they voice. In Cabernet Sauvignon with My Brother, Raf is surrounded by stony Canterbury paddocks and failed relationships, but he knows enough to be content. He has beer in his fridge, fresh rabbit on his plate, and he realises that "happiness is related to the level of expectation'. Characters like this are the antidote to the X-generation.


Locations are just as familiar, and again Marshall remains true to form. Not really influenced by the increasing urban trend in fiction, he continues to present his human dramas predominantly in small-town or rural settings. Human life is no less tragi-comic for being played out in West Melton than in Wellington, is no less complex in the Rai Valley than in Rome.


Crises take place in the most mundane of settings and, if anything, gain in tension because of it. In The Occasion, Mervyn faces a psychiatric breakdown on a trampoline out the back of a Picton motel.


The chillingly violent Coming Home in the Dark is all the more horrifying because it all begins on an innocuous family outing on a sunny day, in Mount Cook National Park.


Despite the continuity throughout the volume, the chronological arrangement of the stories also allows for a clear sense of development. The later Marshall uses interior monologue as easily as the New Zealand vernacular, so that a straightforward story is juxtaposed with an abstract Literary Fair.


Characters are still called names such as Baz and Gazz but, as in the beautiful Don't Wake Beside Me, macho voices are interspersed with narrative passages so lyrical they're more like poetry. And Marshall's interpretations become even more succinct, so that one sentence ("the derided, yearning desolation of the middle class") can sum up the gist of an entire story.


Which brings me back to balance. After finishing this book, you feel as if you've read it all, know it all. As if you've just finished a comprehensive tour of the human heart, experienced every human emotion, met every type of human being. But you're not exhausted because Marshall maintains full control, always.


His ability to express our paradoxical, chaotic lives so honestly but with such precision and grace - it's a paradox in itself, and it's breathtaking.

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