Tuesday, June 07, 2011

THE LARNACHS - Owen Marshall - Vintage - $39.99

Publication date for Owen Marshall's fourth novel was only Friday last and yet over the weekend I have read three reviews in our print media - Charlotte Grimshaw waxed lyrical (by her standards) in the Weekend Herald's excellent Canvas magazine, while Kelly Ana Morey was also most impressed in the Herald on Sunday's book pages. Meantime the New Zealand Listener splashed out three whole pages for John McCrystal's review.

That is an impressive opening salvo. In the UK and US it is commonplace for reviews of major fiction titles to be published on or immediately before publication date whereas here reviews tend to trickle out over a month or so.
Clearly then there is a lot of interest in The Larnachs.

Joining in the fray Beattie's Book Blog regular fiction reviewer, Wellington-based writer Maggie Rainey-Smith, has also found the book an impressive read.
Here is her review:

When offered the chance to read an advance copy of ‘The Larnachs’ by Owen Marshall, (pic right), to review, I did not hesitate, for indeed, Owen Marshall is one of my absolute favourite authors.   But I must add that I wondered if it was appropriate too.   For you see, I am also one of his students from the Class of 2001 at Aoraki Polytechnic and for just a moment I considered how appropriate it was for me to even dare to review – the student and the Master.

               All this became so much easier as I began reading.  I will admit to a tiny frisson of trepidation in the beginning as I adjusted to the tone, the conventions of the time, the densely packed yet beautifully rendered historical details to set the scene.
But this trepidation was very quickly supplanted by delight and admiration as I became absorbed into the life of William Larnach as told by his third wife Constance and his youngest son Douglas, (known affectionately to each other as Conny and Dougie).   This is not a novel in which the plot is a grand secret but it is a recreation of the scandal and tragedy that befell the Larnachs.  Marshall has bravely re-imagined a grand passion amid the constraints and conventions of another century, indeed a scandal that in any century would set tongues wagging.
The novel builds upon meticulous historical details of the time, including the relationship between William Larnach and Richard John Seddon, down to acute observations of their character, ambitions and rivalry, the petty social side-shows and the more pressing political dramas of the day. It is a riveting recreation of a particular era and brings to bear Marshall’s acute observations (as always) on human character.
That this novel manages to be so much the story of Connie and Dougie and yet too remains intensely, the story of William Larnach, is a tribute to the skill of the author.   The reader could so easily have been distracted by the growing relationship between William Larnach’s son and his third wife and lost sympathy for William, or even vice versa.   But somehow, with great affection and attention to detail, Marshall has re-created a grand passion that impels the reader to feel great empathy and understanding for everyone and deliciously, to be transported into the joy and truth of love.
Ah, and there is more.   This is good sex.   How hard it is to write well about sex.  Although constrained by the mores of the time, the conventions and the language, somehow Marshall has managed to write well of an intense, intimate and achingly physical relationship in loving detail that remains within the language conventions of the time and dare I say it, manages to be erotic, without being distasteful.

When I was a student in the Class of 2001 at Aoraki Polytechnic, I was working in the recruitment industry where we relied on superlatives to market our candidates and I was free with such language and expected to hear it in return.   But there were no ‘greats’, or ‘excellents’ in the Class of Timaru’s Chekhov.    It was here in this class that I learned to lean inwards, to listen carefully and to be glad of a simple ‘good’.   There were three levels of good, and our class learned to discriminate and decode which good was which and we knew when we heard the slightly longer, with a rising inflection, that indeed, we had produced a piece of 'good' work.   
And so, to demonstrate rather than to squander superlatives, I will alert you to what I believe are examples of the very, very, ‘good’ writing in this novel.

The sly humour (as always):
This is Conny speaking after an accident in the buggy with her husband William and they were taken in by strangers to change clothes and recover.   “Mrs Driffel remained with me throughout, commenting on the garments effusively:   In other circumstances I would have asked to be left alone to dress, but felt under some obligation….She was born in Waterford, she told me, came out as a servant and had three proposals of marriage before the ship landed, with better ones to follow.  Judging by the appearance of her husband, the earlier men must have been markedly unprepossessing.”

The precision of his prose:
‘Marriage to William has disclosed no particular unpleasant side to his nature, but I must admit to some disappointment in the relationship we have in private.’

Acute observation of character:
               ‘There was a terrible fire at Cargill’s following the Otago Anniversary Ball of ’92 and although Edward rebuilt, it has not regained its former splendor.  He told me that the times were very different and indulgence could not be justified again.  Much of considerable beauty was destroyed.   William was sympathetic, yet could not repress a sense of smugness that misfortune had passed him by.’

And of love:
‘The sun, the sea, the opportunity for us to talk with complete openness, and for the first time, the relaxation that comes from having enjoyed each other utterly.’
‘I especially noticed the smallness of her hands, the pale wrists barely thicker than the ivory shaft of a riding crop.’

Historical detail:
Conny on travelling to Brisbane Exhibition with William and Douglas … ‘More than three thousand staghorn, birds’-nest and elkhorn ferns, and untold numbers of palms, orchids and potted plants. 
the building of ‘The Camp’ (Larnach Castle).

Dougie recalling the good times when ‘The Camp’ was being built… ‘It wasn’t just people that Father gathered from afar for his great enterprise, but materials too: heart kauri from the Far North, fire bricks from Glasgow, Belgian marbles tiles, flagstones from Edinburgh, Marseilles cobblestones for the stables, Welsh slate, Arabian rugs, Italian marble baths and Venetian glass’ 

And of sorrow:
One of the Maid’s at the Castle on learning of the death (well, I shan’t say of whom readers already familiar with the story of the Larnachs will know)… ‘She put her hands to her hair, shook her head as if assailed by a swarm of bees, and sobbed.’

Oh, it is a very good read (think good with a long slow emphasis on the vowel sounds and a marked rising at the end of the word).   Actually, I venture to say, I am certain that this is his very best novel.   So, snuggle up by the fire or a glowing heater, entrust yourself to the master storyteller, and go back into the history (imagined and real) of one of our more famous founding families, and of course ‘The Camp’.


Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington-based author and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.    

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