Owen Marshall Vintage $28
I reviewed this title on Radio New Zealand National's Nine to Noon show this morning. Here is the text in case you missed it. It is not exactly the same of course as one is ad-libbing and responding to questions and comments from host Kathryn Ryan.
It is interesting to observe that on the front cover the publishers have included after the title, Drybread, the words “a novel” and I guess that is because Owen Marshall has such a huge reputation
as New Zealand’s great exponent of the short story, he has more than 10 collections of short stories published, whereas this is his third novel hence the words “a novel” on the cover.
Owen Marshall is a South Island country town boy from way back and for my money no one can capture the essence of that countryside and her people better than he can.
Here is the opening paragraph:
The Maniototo is burnt country in summer, and the bare, brown expanse of it has a subdued shimmer. Theo wished he’d brought dark glasses. Even with the air conditioning on, he could feel the sun’s heat on his arms. The hills had no bush, and lay like a gargantuan, crumpled blanket, wheat coloured and with the shadows sharply defined, and that shimmer of heat at the base.
Marshall’s prose captures Central Otago wonderfully in much the same way as Grahame Sydney does with his paintings and Brian Turner with his poetry.
Drybread is a long-since abandoned gold-mining settlement where all that remains is the deserted graveyard and three rundown old baches without electricity, water supplied from tanks fed from the roof, and outside toilets of the long-drop dunny variety.
It is to one of these humble, sparsely furnished baches that the resourceful and courageous Penny Maine-King has fled from California with her young son in defiance of a California court order that awarded custody of the boy to her estranged husband.
And it is to this bach to meet Penny that Marshall’s central character, Theo Esler, travels from Christchurch to seek a story as he is a senior reporter on the local newspaper.
I guess you could say that Drybread is a contemporary love story, it is indeed that but it is so much more. Marshall deals with the subject of divorce within the story in a realistic but thoughtful and understanding way as he does with the several varied, and usually flawed relationships that exist within his book. This is real life and banality has no place. It is a realistic exploration of human experiences. One chapter in particular where Theo is visiting his parents who live in a retirement village I found especially moving. It is a fine piece of sensitive writing and many NZ’er will relate to and be moved by the scene he portrays.
What also shines through, as it does in much of his writing, is his love of the South Island landscape, and there are some quite wonderful pieces as Theo makes his trips back and forth between Christchurch and Central Otago.
There is not a wasted word as Marshall delivers his pared-down descriptions of characters and scenes. This is a master writer at work.
I loved it, so much that I read it in two sittings.
Marshall has won almost everything there is to win in NZ by way of awards & scholarships and residencies etc which is a refelction on the exalted place he holds on the local literary scene.
He is also generous with his time in attending Writers & Readers Festivals, judging writing competitions and so on.
Next weekend he is the keynote speaker at the Wanganui Literary Festival and then on Saturday 15 September I have the privilege of discussing DRYBREAD with him at GOING WEST - Books & Writers Festival.