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Tomorrow We Save the Orphans by Owen Marshall.

Reviewed by Michael King.

Simply the best

THE LAST WORDS Frank Sargeson wrote before he sank into his final illness in 1981 were a letter of encouragement to the emerging short story writer he most admired, Owen Marshall. While Sargeson would not have planned such a gesture (nor, at the time, been even aware of its significance), there is a justice and a kind of symmetry to it: the doyen of New Zealand writers losing his voice just as another was gaining his, and saluting the man many have come to see as his successor.

The last claim is not publisher's hyperbole (in fact the blurb on Marshall's covers is excessively modest). I agree with the reviewer who said recently that it was time to stop equivocating and to say what Marshall's most recent collection makes abundantly clear: Owen Marshall is, quite simply, the most able and the most successful exponent of the short story currently writing in New Zealand.

Others (one thinks of CK Stead and John Cranna, for example) produce individual pieces of short fiction whose penetration and originality dazzle the reader, but Owen Marshall has, for more than a decade, turned out a stream of mannered stories that consistently dissect human motivation and mannerism and display immense writing skill. His new volume Tomorrow We Save The Orphans (John McIndoe $24.95) reveals no diminution of achievement; if anything, Marshall's powers show every sign of waxing.

Most of Marshall's characters are men. They are for the most part middle-aged or elderly: They tend to live in provincial towns. The quality that gives their lives an especial bite is the sese of awkwardness or menace that often lies behind an appearance of normality or (even) of beauty.

My favourite in this new collection is "The Rule of Jenny Pen", a marvellously conceived and realised exploration of malice and sadism behind the genteel fašade of an old people's home. But there is more, much more: the third-rate poet mistakenly sent to a writers' conference who becomes an international star; the insurance salesman who learns that only obliqueness will win the interest of farmer clients; the noted international traveller who is too busy bragging of his doings in exotic countries to notice the wonders in front of him; the haunted prison superintendent who disappears into the bush; a chance for "the olders living former champion who isn't completely gaga" to address the tennis club's centennial dinner.

All these stories are distinguised by intelligence ("it is the nature of the human mind that there must be a motivating priority"), humour ("like the eyes of the snow goose, his outline in apparel posed a riddle that was discomforting") and elegance. The evocation of locations verges on magical.

I kept thinking as I read this fine book how much it would have delighted Frank Sargeson. I enjoyed it too, in addition to admiring it. So will any reader who values good stories well told.

 

Contents of collection:

The Rule of Jenny Pen

Iris

The Rose Affliction

Heating the World

309 Hollandia

Literary Fair

A Guest of Honour

Aubade

Gideon at the Walls of Party Talk

Algebra

Immortality

Booke's Country Life Choice

Don't Wake Beside Me

Saffron Walden

A Message for Life

Pluto

Supplication for Position

The Man Who Discovered the Body

A View of Our Country

Glasnost

The Dungarvie Festival

Tomorrow We Save the Orphans