Return to Harikoa Bay by Owen Marshall
For the majority of New Zealand readers Owen Marshall needs no introduction. However, as NZ Booklovers is now read widely overseas, bear with me as I try to write a brief synopsis of the author, considered a master of short stories. I say try, because the list of Marshall’s work is almost as long as the list of accolades he has received for his writing. Here I have borrowed heavily from the publisher’s own website, for the list is exhaustive.
Marshall’s many awards include: The New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship in Letters, fellowships at Otago and Canterbury universities, and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in Menton, France. Marshall is an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to literature; and a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM); and in 2013 he received the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. In 2000 his novel Harlequin Rex won the Montana New Zealand Book Awards Deutz Medal for Fiction. Many of his other books have been shortlisted for major awards, and his work has been extensively anthologised.
You see what I mean. Even an edited list is longer than most conversations. Little wonder then that Marshall is also lauded by other writers of note, including Vincent O’Sullivan, the late author Janet Frame and historian Michael King; as well as our foremost female of fiction, Dame Fiona Kidman. All have variously regarded Owen Marshall as the master of short story telling; with O’Sullivan suggesting that nobody tells our [New Zealand’s] stories better. And, yes, for what it’s worth, I would agree.
Last year Landmarks, Marshall’s collaboration with landscape artist Grahame Sydney and poet Brian Turner, a masterpiece of a book, was shortlisted for the NZ Booklovers Lifestyle Award. It was an epic coffee table collection from three men who are giants in their respective fields, each with a masterly ability to distil the essence of Kiwi life. In this, his current book, I drew on some of those images to navigate the settings for some of the short stories.
I loved them all; but some of my favourites were Frost Flowers; Return to Harikoa Bay and Rue de Paradis. One of the things I find most extraordinary about Marshall’s capacity as a writer is his ability to authentically enter the mindset of each character, no matter what their occupation or gender might be. I was captivated, and rarely experienced an off-key moment throughout the collection.
If I have one observation, though, it is the strong filter of the male gaze through Marshall’s eyes which sometimes permeates his writing and which – when occasionally encountered - made me, as a female reader feel a slight level of discomfort. But perhaps the politics of gender have no place in a book review and my focus for this piece should be purely on Marshall’s other-worldly ability to read the very essence of his numerous characters, and then to write about it.
Reviewer: Peta Stavelli