Return to Harikoa Bay by Owen Marshall (Vintage, 2022), 304pp, $36
These stories are like the objets d’art that you find in a gallery in the Whitestone Quarter of Oamaru. They are various, small and large, arranged in good order on tables above old wooden floorboards that once supported bales of wool and the tread of nailed boots. Provincial, well crafted, mostly from the hands of the gallery owner who follows you around and explains what is particular about this and that. Which can be annoying so that, in the end, you are not sure what to buy or leave behind.
There are 33 objets or stories of different shapes and sizes here, although many are fashioned from a similar clay and stone. As the narrator explains of ‘Piwakawaka’, and which could apply to most: ‘this is not a story, and need conform to no rules of unity, or genre’. They are ‘just a recollection from the motley of unscripted life that drifts past’.
This is reinforced by a sameness to the narrator’s voice in many of the stories and supported by Marshall’s recent comment that he sees his role as a writer to be a ‘ventriloquist’. This suggests that, although it may be disguised, it will always be his voice speaking through his chosen ‘dummies’. In this way, this most private of authors, unlikely to write a memoir, is letting us in on his memories and life’s anecdotes through the disguise of fiction.
Marshall’s biography is, perhaps, most evident in ‘The English visitor’, a story about the experience of a New Zealand writer in residence in Menton with the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, which Marshall held in 1996. Brenda, the English visitor, turns up at the Villa Isola Bella writer’s room and her conversation with the fellow reveals how little he really knows about Mansfield. She enables him to enlarge the scope of the lecture he is soon to give in Nice about ‘KM’.
A travelling writer’s profit from chance encounters with women in France is also the subject of ‘Being Frank’. Here, the protagonist meets Madison, a Tennessee writer, at a book fair in Romans-sur-Isere, home of the International Shoe Museum (although from ‘Romans’ it seems to have missed the chance to be the home of novels). He and Madison develop an easy rapport, discussing the locals, the town, books, academia and writing. ‘Her experience was more interesting than mine, or maybe it was just the novelty for me of life recounted from a female point of view.’ When the range of topics seems to be exhausted, he raises the subject of sex and asks if she is married. No, but she has a partner whom he will soon meet. Our writer had not expected this to be a ‘woman but wasn’t much surprised’ and, somehow, neither is the reader. They all have a convivial time together before they go their different ways. ‘I have none of Madison’s poetry, but I remember her so well and Lisa, too, and the shouting match in the café by the river, and the elderly man with splendid boots by the fountain with the bronze gryphon.’ They are the kind of slivers of memory we may all recount, the encounters, incidents and objects that link us to time and place.
The sense of a Marshall memoir also pervades stories connected to student days in the times when young fellas worked in wool stores and on farms during the holidays to put together the cash they needed for the following year’s uni. Tales of times past that drift into telling, not showing. Of loners, articulating stories of loneliness, failure and gloom. It is often raining.
The best of these, perhaps, is ‘Third in the back row’, a first-person account of the lengths to which a young Christchurch man, Roland, goes to connect with an attractive girl who works in radio advertising but who is barely aware of his presence. He becomes obsessed with everything about her. ‘Imagine the pleasure of sitting down with Diane Muscroft and talking about publicity for your business, or talking about anything at all, or just sitting down with Diane Muscroft.’ He tries, all casual-like, to glean information about her boyfriends from her sister, and this brings brutal deflation. Diane confronts him. ‘What’s that all about?’ ‘It was just in passing.’ ‘But it’s personal stuff.’ ‘I was just wondering that’s all. Maybe we could have a drink or something.’ ‘Stop wondering’, she said. ‘Stop thinking with your cock, okay? Nothing doing, okay Roland?’ Diane told her Dad about his infatuation and Mr Muscroft had thought him a ‘pleasant enough lad, but destined to be always someone third from the right in the back row’. For those readers who were young long before social media and cell phones, there is felt experience in this.
There is an unashamed and effective excursion into the past in ‘Behind the scenes’, where Richard ‘became an old man at seventy-six’ after cancer, both bowel and prostate, and a fall. His wife and children tell him he must accept his age, ‘not take on as much’. ‘It’s all downhill after your mid-seventies’, a mate tells him. ‘There’s nothing to look forward to, is there.’ Richard finds the past more welcoming, ‘a place for him in the theatre of former times’. In Christchurch, where he had spent most of his life, places he frequents and his regular activities prompt memories of people and incidents and create a fabric for his life. ‘The past is a sustenance for him now … part memory, part dream, part a reliving.’
There are side excursions from the main Marshall Way, such as ‘The undertaker’s story’, where the author revisits the kind of dormant, unexpected evil in men that invests past stories such as ‘Coming home in the dark’. But vintage Marshall reaches its apotheosis with the title story, ‘Return to Harikoa Bay’, where there is the ‘flickering presence of the past behind the substance of the present, as always when you come back to a special place after many years’. Here is the bach in the Sounds where Ivan and Nicky always came with their boys, now grown and gone away. But they must stay in a newer bach now that the old bach is not available, occupied by a younger couple who remind Ivan uncomfortably of what is missing in his own life now, the early intimacy and sexuality with Nicky. Yet she had always found ‘lovemaking overrated – even with men more attractive and talented than Ivan’.
They had not talked a lot about the days ahead but Ivan ‘knew there would be some pretty serious stuff laid out; a reckoning although neither had used the phrase’. He still enjoyed the beachcombing, even caught some fish, but he could not find the glow-worms in the bush creek that fascinated the boys when they were young. Nostalgia could not paper over the ‘reckoning’. Nicky had plans to follow her own life now the boys were gone. She was applying for a job at a university in West Virginia; he was welcome to go with her but that was his choice.
‘Return to Harikoa Bay’ is vividly authentic. Marshall can be too fond of a homily to conclude his stories. But it is unnecessary here as he weaves difference and change into a classic narrative of nothing ever remaining the same, of the husband who never wants his wife to change and the wife who always will. As homilies go, the last lines of the book sum up Marshall’s intention: ‘The years rustle by like fallen leaves, and you can’t go back, you can’t go back, for as Proust knew, what you seek is not a place, but a time past.’
PHILIP TEMPLE is a prizewinning Dunedin author engaged with most genres. He has been appointed ONZM for his contribution to literature and granted a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Excellence.