Love as a Stranger

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Love as a Stranger

9781775538578

This is vintage Owen Marshall. A contemporary novel about a baby boomer ménage à trois (although that might actually be an exaggeration and perhaps affaire is more accurate). It begins in a cemetery in Auckland where we met Sarah and Hartley, total strangers, who engage in a conversation about a fascinating inscription on a small headstone for a grave that has collapsed in on itself. Emily Mary has been shot on her way to bible class.

Sarah, is a woman in her late 50’s, who hails from Hamilton but who is temporarily domiciled in Auckland in an apartment with her husband Robert while he is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Sarah has time on her hands and as a result, she bumps into Hartley again… and again.All three key characters, Sarah, Hartley and Robert are very ordinary, leading fairly un-extraordinary lives and this is where Marshall shines. He knows how to unwrap the ordinary and show the reader the interiority of what could otherwise be quite banal lives.

The story unfolds gently, the circumstances of how Hartley and Sarah begin a sexual relationship. It seems quite natural and unspectacular. Robert is sick, Sarah has time on her hands, Hartley is widowed and looking for company. It’s not the be all and end all take your breath-away sex, it’s companionship with sexual benefits. But here is where Marshall takes risks. He writes of the whole messy business, details that writers often skip over, and it’s not sordid or prurient, it’s quite charming instead. Or does that mean it is believable?

As always, Marshall’s keen observation of the human condition and people shines through. My first laugh out loud moment came early in the book when we are introduced to Hartley’s ex mother-in-law:

‘Her mother kept the conversation going by listing the features that made Devonport unique, and then the superiority of her own part of Auckland. It was an indication of the sort of woman she was – preoccupied with the instruction of other and the emphasis of her own significance.’

And this
‘Irene was thin and always well dressed, but age ravaged her and although she kept out of the sun her skin darkened and loosened until it seemed as if she wore stockings over her limbs. Towards the end there was so little of her that she appeared in the process of mummification, with only her dark, jewelled eyes glinting from the wrappings.’

My next chuckle came when the author builds a picture of the lovers as they might be observed by an outsider.

‘To others they could pass as husband and wife, except perhaps to the more insightful observer of the close attention they paid each other. A tall, slightly heavy woman in what might tactfully be termed late middle age, well and casually dressed, the colour of her thick brown hair salon reinforced.’

And so an affair begins with Hartley and Sarah that seems to some extent benign in its simplicity and almost inevitability. Sarah’s husband Robert is in the shadows at this stage, as a vague figure who is being treated for cancer. Hilariously, as Hartley becomes more besotted with Sarah, he wants to buy her a frivolous gift and says:

‘I’ll buy you French undies.’ But Sarah is having none of this. ‘Like hell you will. You can buy me slippers. I need a pair. All grandmothers do.’
Hartley becomes curious and wants to meet his ‘rival’ Robert. ‘Robert was a large, intelligent, self-centred man who had run down into needy dependence.’ They do meet, and Sarah doesn’t know they have and Robert doesn’t know who Hartley is either.

As the story progresses, Sarah has to balance the joy of this new affair against her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. In contrast, Hartley recently widowed with a son living in London, has no such constraints and he begins to imagine a future with Sarah. Hartley begins texting Sarah when she is at home in the apartment with Robert. Sarah is disturbed by this new insistence and it amplifies the deceit as she has to rush to another room to read the text and then to lie about who is texting.

Marshall very cleverly deconstructs the mechanics of a love affair. The various components ‘there’s always an element of vanity in love’, the competing personal imperatives as to why and how an affair might happen and then, the other lives that will be impacted.

It’s a terrific story and builds to an ending that is both gripping and in some strange way on reflection probably inevitable, but I doubt many readers see it coming. I certainly didn’t and I think it is a masterstroke and takes the novel into the literary thriller genre.

Highly recommended.

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The simplest words

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For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.

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I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.

Mainlining Mansfield

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(And a link to my report on the recent conference in Wellington on Beatties Book Blog).
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I overdosed recently. A strange drug set me reeling into literary dismorphia. I was mainlining Mansfield at the time, being drip-fed abstracts over a period of three days. I began to hallucinate, imagine myself tubercular, talented, a genius with a Dad who had enough dosh to keep me afloat – something like a yearly stipend. It felt lovely for a while and I scribbled feverishly in my computer notebook, aware that if the National Library did suddenly want my feverish jottings, that I should spell check now and then. But too, I knew, my odd use of commas and ellipsis would be found exquisite, rather than extravagant and that whole new abstracts would be written, eventually, years after my demise, so I didn’t worry… well, I did a little – but not enough to stop me.

I knew too from listening to more erudite and analytical writers than myself (before the dismorphia and hallucinating) that words like ‘little’ had no place in the literary canon. I used Google and an on-line thesaurus to find alternatives… and ‘not big’ seemed highly original and after all I could embed the link to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary and thereby avoid any plagiarism charges.

Mind you, (replace with an expression of ‘so what’), I’ll swear I heard scholars insisting that plagiarism was a writer’s right, that ‘The child who was tired’ by Katherine Mansfield, was merely a flattering reframing of Chekhov, perhaps even an improvement on. There was no proof they said that KM had even read the English version of this short story, as if somehow, the Russian rendition would render her English version authentic. Aha, I imagined momentarily channeling Anna Akhmatova ‘s poetry for my blog, claiming never to have read the English translations. But I was distracted as two eminent scholars began arguing over whether or not KM (and therefore me at the time), had contracted Gonorrhea. Someone very clearly wanted proof one way or the other. It was suggested this was impossible without an exhumation, and I didn’t want to offer up myself, my own medical records… for scrutiny…

Someone took me to task too for living through the Russian Revolution, the First World War and the very first General strike in the United Kingdom – as if these things mattered to my literary efforts. Hadn’t I achieved enough with ‘Bliss’, this one story, an almost manifesto for the liberated woman’s libido. Some bright spark even mentioned a fabulous pun running through the story, the pear/pair tree and the various flowerings/pairings, and I have to say I was delighted to claim this subliminal reading as my very own intention. This is the wondrous thing about my fans re-reading me – yes, I know, I know, I’m not KM. But you see, I was mainlining, and the effect was the same.
Me, kayaking almost in front of the Days Bay holiday home of KM

I grew tired though, after three days, and on the fourth, I witnessed the staging of a small play about my short story ‘At the bay’ – just a stone’s throw from the beach – writers leaping up from their flat whites to appropriate my words. Two grown men pretended to swim in the Pavilion, as if it were the sea and Linda, Granny and Beryl muffed their final lines, the great moment when Stanley is finally GONE. I saw one of the writers viciously punch the other to prompt her… it was that punch I think that bought me to my senses, and made me realise, I was just another wannabe, hanging on the coat-tails of the Colonial Shop Girl of literature and I realised I didn’t want to swap lives after all. I like being me, here ‘at the bay’, alive, able to swim in the sea without Jonathan Trout… I wasn’t prepared after all for a Faustian pact, to be famous and dead and remembered, instead of here, today, alive and aspiring.
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I’m doing the twelve steps now… having had a literary awakening, recognising that I am powerless in the face of KM, and I’ve asked for forgiveness for my own literary shortcomings, admitted that the critics at times have been right about my failings, and I’m trying to remove all defective characters from my stories…
I’ve abandoned the excess, found the limit of myself, but I continue to write… and I always will…

The ‘P’ word and the play ‘Oleanna’

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The P. Word and the play ‘Oleanna’.

I have to say that my life has been lightened with laughter this week due to the scandalous “P” word being one of the lead items on the six o’clock news.   I’m a girl from the sixties who pre-dates the Tampon practically, and I haven’t enjoyed such a good joke in years.   You see, I raised two men to adulthood and I’m a grandmother, and I don’t ever recall talking openly about my monthly cycle to my lads.  It wasn’t until my first daughter-in-law arrived at our dinner table, that we kind of tacitly agreed that I too might have had cycles that affected my monthly well-being (mood-swings even).

Of course I had hormonal mood swings and possibly even more dramatic as my monthly cycle declined.   I was emotional, probably a bit frightened, and mournful too, of the ending of the joyous fertility that the monthly cycle heralds.   All of those things and more; because each cycle is a time of extraordinary potential.   Ah, but did I burden my employer, or my family?  Well, hubby was in on the secret and we both knew what pre and post monthly tension was and we both enjoyed too, the added benefits of the fertility cycle – it is of course, not without its benefits.   But too, may I add, I count myself one of those fortunate women whose life was not seriously affected, so I’m speaking from you might say, a vantage point.

But, the hue and cry this week all around New Zealand over the anachronistic remark of Alasdair Thompson, of the Employers Association, has lifted my laughter levels and reminded me that laughter is surely the very best medicine.   Mr Thompson it seems has gathered his scientific evidence from a female member of staff in his human resource team who was monitoring the sick leave of his own staff.  Is the human resource manager who monitors the leave, a menopausal granny with an axe to grind who wishes she was still menstruating, or is she one of those fortunate women who barely bleeds and who can’t believe that others do?   And here I must confess that perhaps I was once one of those; although not the granny with an axe to grind.   Ah, but isn’t it the case so often, that we girls are sometimes in on upholding these entrenched views – you know how it is, I get on with it, so you should too.

I worked in recruitment for almost twenty years and so I know the attitudes of employers, the make-up of groups like such as the Chamber of Commerce back in the eighties, and many male Chief Executives of small to medium-sized your average-run-of-the-mill home-grown Kiwi companies.  It is not that long ago (the mid to late seventies) when to send six CV’s to the National Bank for graduate intake, that we knew if someone had a Maori sounding surname, that only five candidates would be interviewed and the gender balance would tip in favour of men, whichever way it went.   I stand by this assertion but I recognise it’s untrue in this the 21st century.    I recall a time when an employer was able to ask upfront, if a woman newly married was planning a family, and if so… when!    As a recruiter, I was expected to pre-screen candidates about this.   My boss at that time, a wonderful woman I worked for in the recruitment industry used to say, and…  you could just as easily get hit by a bus.

I’ve read the outrage over Mr Thompson’s remarks and the hilarious tweets.   This from Hilary Barry “Feeling hormonal. Might go home. #alasdairthompson” and a tweet or two later she tells us she is planning sex education to her sons using Mr Thompson as an example.    A few people who are equally outraged also point out that he’s not a bad bloke.   I quote in this morning’s Dompost, Mai Chen “I’ve known Alasdair for a long time and I like him, but frankly, he’s wrong.”   And from Australia, Deborah Bush, a member of Pelvic Pain Steering Committee Australia evidently said ‘although she agreed his comments were discriminatory, he had a point.”

I for one thank the man from the bottom of my granny heart, that finally, periods have made the six o’clock news.

Awesome.

How come it took so jolly long?

And the truth is that everyone is laughing at Mr Thompson, men and women alike, all around New Zealand, laughter… surely?

And here I must shamelessly alert you to my début in 2001 into  Sport, the prestigious Victoria University Press literary magazine.   It is my only publication in Sport titled ‘Saturday Night Shopping‘ a story about the purchase of the productivity-stopping monthly supplies.

And this allows me to segue nicely to a play I saw last evening ‘Oleanna’ by David Mamet.   This is a terrific performance by the Butterfly Creek Theatre Troupe.    They describe the play in the promotional flyer thus ‘this play about political correctness gone wrong or maybe it’s about the misuse of power has divided audiences around the world’.   Well, I don’t think Mr Thompson has quite managed that, I think he has united audiences in New Zealand who think his ideas dated, unscientific and well, as mentioned before, laughable.

David Mamet’s play is not so funny, more compelling, and thought-provoking.   The acting is outstanding and all the more impressive  because one of the actors, Damian Reid, was stranded in Melbourne due to the ash-cloud from the Chilean volcano, and John Marwick, Director of the play, stepped in and read the lines (to perfection) of the Professor.  The student, Carol, is mesmerizingly played by Sarah-Rose Burke who has to develop the character of Carol over eighty minutes in a stunning yet subtly splendid performance.   It is the first time I have seen the play and cannot compare this production with any other, but it was brilliantly rendered so that your sympathies are constantly moving (well mine, anyway) from one character to another.   The wardrobe too, played a fascinating role in the development of the character of Carol, the student, who starts the play as a confused almost hapless student in her ankle-length little black socks and slipper-style shoes, and in the next act she is wearing fabulously hot shiny red shoes and the final act wearing lace-up boots, in the powerful position of being able to threaten the Professor’s tenure, and finally, much worse, for both of them.

Oh, the ending is superb, and having looked up the play, I see that the ending is often changed sometimes, depending on the Director...

“The danger with the play is that it can easily seem a partial, loaded, one-sided attack on the student and on female solidarity in general .But Pinter’s production scrupulously avoids that trap by giving equal weight to both sides of the argument.”

And so too, does John Marwick’s production.

I was reminded of ‘Disgrace’ (J.M. Coetzee), both the book and movie, which explore the sexual power relationships both within a university and in a compelling story of forgiveness in a rural apartheid setting.

If you live in the Wellington region, it’s worth booking a seat in the intimate theatre up on stage at Muritai School, to be at the very least disturbed at the very best, spellbound and provoked.