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Cover - When Gravity SnapsWhen Gravity Snaps by Owen Marshall

Vintage, $26.95

NZ Herald, 10 August 2002

Reviewed by Gordon McLauchlan

Owen Marshall has the gift of telling stories that take hold of you in a personal way and bring echoes of people, places and events you have known but have not paid enough attention to at the time. It is a magical heightening of the ordinary.

But I opened with trepidation this new collection of his stories, because accompanying publicity reminded me I once said he was "as good a short story writer as there is writing in English". It was an extravagant claim but one I believed in sincerely enough to take copies of Marshall's earlier collections as gifts to meetings of International PEN.

I wondered whether he could keep doing it, but my unease was washed away by the first story from which the book gets its title. The narrator is a member of a disparate and often desperate tour group in southern Europe. Marshall demonstrates immediately that he has lost none of his mastery, his deceptive ability to pin down a cast of characters as securely as butterflies on a display board.

In its completeness, the story is richly comic and would make a hilarious movie. Anyone who has ever travelled with a group will recognise the kind of tensions that arc among the individuals and the divisions that split them into subgroups.

Marshall deftly creates shorthand images, quick sketches that strike the reader's mind and stay lodged: "An elderly woman stopped to listen, hunched in her doorway like a ruffled thrush."

This comes near the end of the first story as the narrator's pleasure in the company of one of his fellow travellers wraps him in a calm acceptance that, no matter where you are, the kernel of life is a close, admiring friendship.

The second story, The Devil at Bruckner's Bend, is funny in an entirely different way, revealing the author's fine eye for the small gestures that tell the reader so much about interactions, and his penetrating gaze into the personalities behind those gestures. He also has a remarkable control of the pace and mood of a story, just telling you enough as he unrolls it.

The situations and the people in these 24 stories are varied, ranging from two brothers - one of whom is dying - spending time together after many years through a clash of caricatures in A Bum Steer, the sad desperation of Spring with the Sumerbottoms, and Changing Seasons, a beautifully paced, wistful story of love unrequited after a tender start.

The stories here fit recognisably and comfortably into the Marshall oeuvre - except for The Cormorant Devouring Time, which is clever and coded, very different, and needs close reading. He is so practised now with the conventional, naturalistic tale that you can't see any seams.

If there is a flaw it is that occasionally the craft seems to overwhelm the art. But history demonstrates that few things in the world are more emotionally compelling than a well-told story, and the true test is how consuming and satisfying are those in this book. Well, I was enraptured.

It is 25 years now since readers realised that among us was a remarkable talent continuing the long literary tradition of the short story that has enriched the culture of this country. From time to time I still feel exasperated that he is not better known, not more widely acknowledged.

For my part, I'm off to the United States soon and you can be assured a few copies of When Gravity Snaps will be in my bag to show American writers how good the best of us are here.

Grahame Sydney's cover conveys the backdrop of the southern man, all that uncluttered space and that light unsullied by the airborne detritus of over-peopled places. And Marshall is truly a southern man, no trace of flamboyance in his appearance, demeanour or prose, modest and quiet, but with eyes as sharp as those of any other contemporary writer.

* Gordon McLauchlan is a Herald columnist.

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