Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maggie Rainey-Smith reviews Owen Marshall's latest novel

Carnival Sky
by Owen Marshall
Published by Random House NZ (Vintage)
RRP $37.99

This is a quiet story that builds incrementally. In all, not a lot happens and yet almost everything does. We meet Sheff in Auckland, a middle-aged disaffected journalist who has decided to throw in the towel and resign from his job. The novel opens with the startling headline 'Pregnant Llama disembowelled' and the protagonists disbelief that yes, even after his protestations in the Deputy Editor's office the day before, this is the newspaper's headline story

                It took me a few chapters to accept that Sheff was only 44 years old. I suspect this reflects something more about me than it does about the authenticity of the character. I wanted him to be older having his mid-life crisis, but of course, 44 is indeed middle-age. Having resigned from his job, Sheff is planning to travel, but first he is going to do his family duty and go and see his father who is dying.  Sheff has an issue with death. It is a topic he prefers to defer, and at the heart of this is a tragedy he has never quite dealt with. 

                Sheff returns to his hometown in the South Island and so does his younger sister Georgie, a 42 year old oncologist. They haven't spent much time together in recent years and end up sharing a room in a motel in Dunedin, two single beds, booked by his sister, and Sheff has to suppress the urge to assert himself and choose the best bed. From Dunedin they take a hire car together and head homewards.  There's a light touch to it all. The very normality of returning to the house you grew up in, the understated ordinariness of it all. Death is the sub-text but we negotiate it through the everyday encounters with perceptive and humorous insights into relationships, and how they work.  Georgie is able to provide professional assistance to the dying father, and is more in sync with the mother.  In contrast, Sheff is left trying to establish connections with all of them, uncertain of how to be useful.

                There's the definite contrast between perhaps the life of an Auckland journo and that of the 'Southern Man'  and Sheff is now slowing down to consider his younger self, his father as a young man and also the people from this small southern community.  The pace is in tune with his meditative state and each almost uneventful (yet interesting) encounter with the locals and his family, is teased out and analyzed and reviewed in true Marshall style.  A quote on the front cover says 'when death puts life on hold' and indeed, this is Sheff's life on hold as his father dies.

                The story is introspective with all the grace, clarity and acute observations that we expect from Marshall without fancy tricks but the frequent oddly unexpected that so mark his work.  My affection for Sheff grew.  I became intrigued and keen to know who he was and what would happen. By the end of the novel I was utterly engaged with this man and his mid-life crisis and he had both my empathy and at times my sympathy.

                There's some powerful stuff about life and death but it creeps up without warning and doesn't hit you over the head, but instead it gently nudges you into a recognition - the things that we all eventually have to negotiate, the awfulness and the ordinariness of it.

                I'm an Owen Marshall fan. I've said this before.  I first encountered his short stories as a late-life 'middle-aged' (gulp even a little older than that) student at Victoria University. The first story that I loved and has never left me was 'The Day Hemingway Died' and in this story I met the Ransumeens. I was delighted to have a family (not sure if it's the same one) of Ransumeen's return in this novel, even if for just a cameo appearance. It's such a thrill when you know and love a writer's work and you get something like this

                And, in the end, there is a rather beautiful connection with the title of this book, Sheff's father and a young child - it really does round off a thoughtful meditation on family, grief and going forward.

Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington based author and regular reviewer of fiction on this blog. -

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