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.

Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

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Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

A friend’s blog has inspired me to write. She wrote about going to a dance recently at the local Cosmopolitan Club with her daughter. Her words conjured up tangible memories of the Saturday Night Dance at the Stoke Memorial Hall. It’s a long time ago. But reading Fiona’s blog, I was right there in my best frock seated on the wooden benches around the perimeter of the hall, waiting to be asked.

We’d spent all day thinking about going to the dance. We even went so far as to cycle to the river to swim with curlers in our hair. Sometimes (not often), we splashed out and bought a face mask from the local Chemist and sat in a hot bath to steam. We didn’t wear a lot of make-up but blue eye-shadow was big back then, I’m sure we wore blue eye-shadow. Pink lipsticks were pretty de rigueur also, or peach, or shades of pink and peach. I’m not sure we wore foundation, but I do recall pancake make-up that could be applied with a damp sponge – perhaps we did that.

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The Stoke Memorial Hall had a polished wooden floor and a raised stage where the band played. It was the days of more formal dancing and the highlight was always the Gay Gordons. My friend and I had learned to do the Valletta and the Foxtrot and the Methodist Church Hall in Richmond (even though I was Catholic). But the Gay Gordons was a wildly exhilarating way to meet almost all the boys in the hall. For some reason, the fat boys with sweaty palms were always the lightest on their feet. You might not want a ride home with them, but you loved the way they swung you around and too, their gentle soft bellies if you stumbled.

Most of the lads wore suits. It’s hard to imagine, but they did. Suits and ties to dance, or a sports jacket. We loved sports jackets. There was something quite dashing about a sports jacket, or even better, the reefer jacket with the extra silver buttons on the outside sleeve. Single versus double-breasted, a lot could be elucidated from such sartorial observations.

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We gave no thought to the terror the lads felt at having to cross the room and ask us to dance. All we knew was the terror of waiting to be asked. Naturally we reserved the right to say no, but it never occurred to us how awful that might be for the rejected suitor. Inevitably, there’d be one or two absolutely ‘must-have’ lads and inevitably, they were snapped up by the one or two ‘must-have’ lasses. This left the rest of us to make do with each other.

The Gay Gordons gave you a decent over-view of prospective rides home…

My friend and I would catch the bus to the Stoke Dance. The buses stopped running some time after ten o’clock and so we had a pact. One of us would find a boy with a car to drive both of us home. It was usually around supper time, after the supper waltz that such arrangements were confirmed. In the bright lights with asparagus rolls on side plates, or a chocolate lamington, we’d make eye contact perhaps for the first time that night with a potential ride home. In the full glare of the supper lights, potential rides home were able to be scrutinised and must have lads and lasses, sometimes faded to also-ran in the 100 watt reality. I guess that’s why the story ‘Supper Waltz Wilson’ the title story of Owen Marshall’s first short story collection, captured my heart immediately.

I don’t recall any of those rides home, but we were pretty safe, as we always went together – one ride was all we required. Whomever of the two of us was lucky enough to be liked for the night, scored a ride for their friend. I wonder what the boys thought about this? There’s no shining moment for me, just the excitement before the dance, the preparation, a kind of pageantry, and of course, the music.

Too, the Sunday post-mortem when we walked the switch-backs, sat in the long grass or swam in the river, comparing notes about the lad we wished had asked us to dance.

And how very strange that one of the most memorable songs from the Stoke Dance is an old Kiwi Folk song about the Māori Battalion – a song about war- but we never really thought about it in that light – well, I know I didn’t.

But don’t get me wrong, we did do the Hippy Hippy Shake, and Twist and Shout on those old polished floors – it wasn’t all waltzing.

P.S. I just found a link to this beautiful waltz