I have never read Owen Marshall before. I don’t know why, as he is certainly well-known in New Zealand writing circles, well-reviewed and favoured by many. His speciality is short stories, featuring acute observation of behaviour and motivations.
The central premise behind Love as a Stranger is the quote “When love is not madness, it is not love”, penned by seventeenth-century Spanish poet and writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Our culture is saturated with love stories gone wrong – usually involving young lovers. We think of the madness, craziness and recklessness of new love as being the domain of the young – think Romeo and Juliet. Very rarely do we hear of wild, crazy, obsessional love applying to older people, people who maybe past their physical prime, people facing difficult questions related to ageing. This is exactly what Owen Marshall tackles in this novel.
Sarah is in her late fifties. She and Robert have been married for many years, mostly successfully, sometimes not, but to their credit seem to have stuck together, lived a good married life, and are now planning on growing old together. However things aren’t so rosy at the moment, with Robert having chemotherapy treatment for a cancer. They have moved from Hamilton to Auckland for the duration of the treatment, living in an inner-city apartment. They don’t know many people in Auckland, so their daily lives revolve around Robert’s treatment programme, and his need for rest. Sarah is quite literally at a loose end, which gives her plenty of time for long walks, contemplation, and drinking coffee in the many city cafes. She is observed by Hartley, early sixties, recently widowed and understandably lonely, slightly disoriented and also at a bit of loose end.
One day while walking through the Symonds St cemetery, Sarah stops at a grave for a 17-year-old girl, murdered by a spurned lover way back in 1886, when Hartley, a random stranger also walking through the cemetery, happens to join her. So begins a friendship that very quickly becomes a love affair. This is a first for Sarah, and for awhile she fully embraces the excitement, the anticipation, the attention, the flattery, the subterfuge. Until she senses that things are tipping over slightly from a good fun time into something a little more obsessive and disquieting. She has to make the decision between her husband, Robert or her new lover, Hartley. Naturally there are consequences, none of them good, of whatever decision she makes.
My plot summary gives the impression that this is Sarah’s story, but it is actually more the story of Hartley, with Sarah and the love affair being the catalyst for the madness of love that develops. The tone throughout the book is slightly menacing and sinister. You know, really, from page two and the words on the headstone in the cemetery that something is going to go badly wrong somewhere: it is really just a case of wondering at which point things are going to come undone.
Owen Marshall keeps the reader in an increasingly tightly-wound grip, precisely paced with really well drawn and complex characters. This has been greatly aided by the ominous illustrations at the beginning of each chapter – a long dark grey shadow of a suited man randomly placed onto a lighter grey background. It is a love story, but not really as we know it, and I am not sure if young(er) people would get as much out of this novel as those who are a similar age as the protagonists. It is about mature love, and love in the hearts of people who have different pressures on them than young lovers do. Sarah, for example has to consider not only her seriously ill husband, but the effects of her actions on her own children and grandchildren, and the ‘family’ unit she and Robert have made over the years. Things that would not enter the consciousness of childless, mortgage-free, financially independent young(er) things! But in an ageing population that is living longer, with marriages and relationships facing different pressures from those faced one generation back, there is quite a lot of reality here.
This really is a very good story, well-written, with suspense and interest maintained throughout, with above all very believable characters. They could quite literally be your next door neighbours, or your work colleagues. It is the three main characters who really make the story, as they face questions and issues, having to make decisions that many of us could now be facing or may possibly face in the future.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
Love As a Stranger
by Owen Marshall
Published by Vintage (PRHNZ)