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The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Stories

Reviewed by Sarah Quigley.

The breathtaking precision and grace of Owen Marshall

A few years ago at a dinner in a Wellington cafe, I ended up sitting next to a physics student. Did we have enough in common to get through the next two hours? I couldn't read equations, but he was more versatile.

It turned out he was a closet short-story afficianado. His favourite author was Owen Marshall. We were immediately friends.

This is what Owen Marshall is: a writer who bridges gaps. He's one of our best-known short-story writers but he's not part of the literati glitterati and won't ever by seen baring his soul for the media. He saves that for his stories, which might be why he's gained such a wide readership.

His writing is down-to-earth without being earthy, full of sentiment but never sentimental. Basically, he achieves what every writer wants and not many manage: perfect balance.

This latest collection from Vintage gives us 67 of Marshall's best stories. In his brief introduction, Marshall describes the selection process as resting mostly on "merit", partly on theme.

Beginning with the wonderful Supper Waltz Wilson and ending up with the previously unpublished People We Know, the stories represent nearly 20 years of writing. But they give an impression of unity, because Marshall's vision has always been all-encompassing.

It's a heart-wrenchingly sad vision, and a side-splittingly funny one. It's wry yet compassionate.

And whether his characters date from 1979 or 1997, they're people we all recognise. Mr Thorpe trapped in his Papanui townhouse, Tucker Locke wavering between pride and despair over his extravagant new wife.

The simpler the characters, the greater the truths that they voice. In Cabernet Sauvignon with My Brother, Raf is surrounded by stony Canterbury paddocks and failed relationships, but he knows enough to be content. He has beer in his fridge, fresh rabbit on his plate, and he realises that "happiness is related to the level of expectation'. Characters like this are the antidote to the X-generation.

Locations are just as familiar, and again Marshall remains true to form. Not really influenced by the increasing urban trend in fiction, he continues to present his human dramas predominantly in small-town or rural settings. Human life is no less tragi-comic for being played out in West Melton than in Wellington, is no less complex in the Rai Valley than in Rome.

Crises take place in the most mundane of settings and, if anything, gain in tension because of it. In The Occasion, Mervyn faces a psychiatric breakdown on a trampoline out the back of a Picton motel.

The chillingly violent Coming Home in the Dark is all the more horrifying because it all begins on an innocuous family outing on a sunny day, in Mount Cook National Park.

Despite the continuity throughout the volume, the chronological arrangement of the stories also allows for a clear sense of development. The later Marshall uses interior monologue as easily as the New Zealand vernacular, so that a straightforward story is juxtaposed with an abstract Literary Fair.

Characters are still called names such as Baz and Gazz but, as in the beautiful Don't Wake Beside Me, macho voices are interspersed with narrative passages so lyrical they're more like poetry. And Marshall's interpretations become even more succinct, so that one sentence ("the derided, yearning desolation of the middle class") can sum up the gist of an entire story.

Which brings me back to balance. After finishing this book, you feel as if you've read it all, know it all. As if you've just finished a comprehensive tour of the human heart, experienced every human emotion, met every type of human being. But you're not exhausted because Marshall maintains full control, always.

His ability to express our paradoxical, chaotic lives so honestly but with such precision and grace - it's a paradox in itself, and it's breathtaking.

The Press Saturday 17 January 1998

Index of short stories with memory jogging annotations contained in:

The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Stories

publ. Vintage 1997From Supper Waltz Wilson - Pegasus, 1979

Supper Waltz Wilson

The Tsunami

Descent From the Flugelhorn O.M.'s first story published in 1976. Two N.Otago club rugby players out selling raffle tickets meet an ageing S. Island rep at the end of his life.

from The Master of Big Jingles -John McIndoe, 1982

The Giving Up Party

Rosemary for Remembrance A couple out visiting distant relatives are made aware of the stress that has been concealed in the relatives' marriage due to family concerns and isolation frustrating artistic ambitions.

Mr Van Gogh The story of Frank Reprieve Wilcox who has devoted his life to art by making his house a glass tribute to Van Gogh. Then the council orders the house's destruction to make way for a new bridge...

The Master of Big Jingles

Cabernet Sauvignon With My Brother The story of Tony, the town boy's, visit to his brother Raf's farmlet near Darfield. Different perspectives are offered on Raf's pseudo-idyllic but ominously isolated lifestyle.

The Charcoal Burners' Dream

Father and Son

Requiem in a Town House A high country farmer retires to the constrictions of a town house in Papanui.

Prince Valiant The story of Neddy the member of a Northland shearing team who seeks to escape from his reality with the help of his Chrysler Charger.

Effigies of Family Christmas

Monologue and Absent Friends

Thinking of Bagheera

Body and Soul

Harvest Apocalypse

from The Day Hemingway Died -John McIndoe, 1984

Kenneth's Friend A boy's holiday in the Sounds leads to one questioning the quality of the other boy's friendship and his own responses when a boating accident occurs.

The Spendthrift

The Divided World.. A prose poem that examines a multiplicity of diverse ideas by countering one set of perceptions with those of a flippant cynic.

The Seed Merchant

A Town of Rivers..A lyrical tribute to Oamaru runs through this account of a stroll with his father.

The Paper Parcel A twelve year old boy's romantic plans for a dance are frustrated by his mother's choice of a fancy dress costume for him.

The Fat Boy.. Whenever something goes wrong in the small town the fat boy seems to be in the vicinity.

The Day Hemingway Died

from The Lynx Hunter - John McIndoe, 1987

Convalescence in the Old City

The Castle of Conceits A day in the life of Charlotte Ecclestone the English student voluptuary who shows us how to make the most of a rainy day.

The Frozen Continents

The Lynx Hunter

Valley Day

Mumsie and Zip

A Day With Yesterman Chatterton gets a break from old age and loneliness when he relocates a car to Dunedin. He picks up a hitchhiker and through contacts with new people revivifies his interest in life.


Wyldbaume at the Frontier

A Poet's Dream of Amazons

from The Ace of Diamonds Gang and The Divided World- McIndoe Publishers, 1993

The Ace of Diamonds Gang


The Complete Male Chauvinists'and Idlers' Pipe Dream

Off By Heart

from Tomorrow We Save the Orphans - John McIndoe 1992

The Rule of Jenny Pen The malevolent but able-bodied Crealy finds power in retirement as he exploits the opportunities for crime that are presented to him the Totara Eventide Home. Not for the faint-hearted.


The Rose Affliction

Heating the World A hard working farmer, Tucker Locke, marries at 42 and finds the claims of his family come as a shock to his plain but selfish sensibilities.

Literary Fair

Don't Wake Beside Me The morning after a one night stand a middle-aged man debates with himself the dilemmas of sexual relationships. His ponderings are alternated with memories of the cardboard male Baz.

Pluto Two couples meet on a holiday in Nelson. The narrator is a dentist and his counterpart is a prison governor. Pleasantries and ideas are exchanged but after they part the governor vanishes into the bush.


The Dungarvie Festival

Tomorrow We Save the Orphans A student encounters Vincenze Dubois a dog-killing, atavistic 'knight' who displays romance and heroism in his night work as a factory's caretaker.

from Coming Home in the Dark - Vintage 1995

Working Up North

The Occasion

Cometh the Hour A Kiwi Western? James Cumuth (J.C.) the quiet, stock-boot wearing, lab scientist shows his mettle when confronting Wesley Igor Drom the notorious garrottist and entrail fetishist.

A Part of Life Polly, a 47 year old chambermaid at Lake Tekapo, comes to a mutually satisfactory arrangement with Mr Sondeen, a rich American trout fisherman.

Recollections of MKD


Prairie Nights

Peacock Funeral


Cass Robbins A middle-aged man seeks a rest from his city life and buys a coastal cottage near Oamaru. He finds his real self but then is drawn again to the bright lights...

This Man's Army

Day One Impressions of a teacher beginning his career in the mid-60s at a school not dissimilar to Waitaki Boys'.

Goodbye, Stanley Tan

Flute and Chance

The Birthday Boy

A Late Run Reece Spruiker retires from shepherding at Erewhon and tries to settle with his daughter in Dunedin. Watching tv one day he sees veterans running races for cash prizes in the US. He has an idea...

Coming Home in the Dark A holiday for Hoagy and Jill's young family to Mount Cook becomes a nightmare when they encounter two evil men called Mandrake and Tubs. Not for nervous trampers.

New Work

People We Know