Love and war, Murray Bramwell

Love as a Stranger
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $38.00, ISBN 9781775538578

The Antipodeans
Greg McGee
Upstart Press, $38.00, ISBN 9781927262030

In his captivating new novel, Love as a Stranger, Owen Marshall immediately greets the reader with portents. The epigraph quotes the 17th-century dramatist and poet, Pedro Calderon de la Barca: “When love is not madness, it is not love.” And the opening sentence in the opening chapter, set in the present,  but located in a 19th-century Auckland cemetery, establishes with a limpid calm a story that is both pleasingly, disarmingly familiar and subtly marbled with a sinister unease:

People in love have a longing to tell others how they met, even if the circumstances are banal, or best suppressed. It’s an expression of their wonder, and gratitude for having found each other. Sarah and Hartley met in the old Symonds Street cemetery, though neither had any links with any of the residents there. Summer – and the shade of the large trees was inviting, despite the dereliction of the place and the long disordered grass encroaching on the sloping paths.

The focus for their conversation is a tombstone – marking the grave of Emily Mary Keeling. The inscription reads: “The beloved daughter of George and Emily Keeling of Arch Hill who was shot on her way to the Primitive Methodist Church Bible Class Alexandra Street April 12 1886, aged 17 years.” Later, both Sarah and Hartley google the details of the murder to discover that she was killed by her young suitor when she spurned his offer of marriage rather than go against her father’s wishes. Hartley comments on the case:

It was huge news in the papers. It is said up to ten thousand people watched the funeral procession, or were at the graveside. That must have been a good proportion of Auckland then. A scriptwriter could hardly come up with a more heart-rending tragedy, and it was all about love, of course. The murderer was besotted with her.

And after shooting her he ran off and killed himself on a street corner… “Love me. I am dying.” Those were her last words.

This is a novel about late middle age, of living and partly living (in T S Eliot’s phrase) and of the unsettling sense that there must be more to life, even as it is running out. Sarah is from Hamilton, staying in Auckland with Robert, her husband, a retired dentist undergoing chemotherapy for invasive prostate cancer. Hartley is a widower, whose wife Madeleine dropped dead at 55, leaving him a house in Titirangi and a legacy of loneliness that runs from his emotionally impoverished childhood on a Southland farm to a drab professional life as a conveyancing solicitor.

Mortality casts a long shadow on all of the characters as they struggle with the grief of lost vitality and the regrets of missed and wasted opportunities. Each of them is wordlessly pleading “Love me. I am dying.” But Marshall is not one for histrionics. His novel deftly captures the low-key pleasures and manners of affluent retirement. The emerging courtship between Sarah and Hartley is conducted in quiet cafés, art exhibitions and afternoon music recitals. Like all Aucklanders of a certain age, they muse about the value of their real estate, potter on the internet and maintain cordial, but oddly dislocated, connection with their time-poor adult children.

Marshall’s slow burning narrative fuse describes a covert affair between a dutiful, devoted but free-spirited woman and a lonely, urbane widower. It focuses on Sarah’s misgivings, her guilty duplicity, her longing for intimacy. It is potentially Barbara Cartland territory, or Mills and Boon, but Marshall makes it twang with tension and quiet desperation.

Love as a Stranger is a splendidly managed social portrait, shrewdly observed and gently described. It is also an excellent unfurling thriller as we are forced to witness an unravelling that will have uncertain and fearful consequences. Simple domestic situations develop Hitchcockian menace when we can no longer be secure in the romantic conventions that the novel invokes, only to subvert them in excruciating and unrelenting ways. We can’t say we weren’t warned: if it is not madness, it is not love. But, even as Marshall quickens the blood with his unfolding story, the novel brings a more enduring sense of tragedy and asks serious and poignant questions about how we conduct ourselves when we only have one life to live.

Greg McGee’s The Antipodeans is as rambunctious and epic as Marshall’s novel is understated and deliberately confined. McGee has created a large canvas and events take place in the turbulent wheels of 20th-century history. Opening his narrative in Venice in 2014, McGee charts the lives of three generations – both New Zealand and Italian – and moves in zigzag fashion from the present to the 1930s, to the exploits of Kiwi troops in Italy during WWII and the political upheavals in Italian cities in the mid 1970s.

Clare Kostidis is accompanying her father, Bruce Spence, on a visit to Venice in 2014. She is escaping humiliating divorce litigation in Auckland. Bruce, gravely ill with leukaemia, is returning to Venice to be honoured by a local rugby team in which he was a player coach in 1976. He also has, as his startled daughter observes, other, deeper motives for his return. In a speech to the rugby club members he says:

“I have lived in a far-off land and never came back for nearly forty years, for reasons which some of you will understand, but my time here has remained with me always, in my cuore” – he thumped his heart – “and in indelible memories which have accompanied me every day of my life since I lived among you.”

Christ, (Clare) thought, as Renzo translated, Who is this man? Where’s he been hiding?

In many ways, McGee’s novel is about antipodean masculinity. Like Hartley’s backstory in Love as a Stranger, there is an inter-generational dearth of feeling: the emotionally impoverished sons of distant, cold, frequently cruel fathers growing up on bleak, meagrely productive South Island farms, or sent to borstal-like boarding schools in their early teens. That certainly describes two of the novel’s central characters  –  New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldiers, Joe Lamont and Harry Spence, who are captured as POWs in Italy in 1943. When they escape they are sheltered by courageous townspeople and resistance fighters in Treviso, near Venice, and further east in Monfalcone and Gemona near the Slovenian border.  Brought together by chance, Joe and Harry are close mates in harrowing adversity. Harry displays almost superhuman resourcefulness and courage, a Kiwi hero – the Good Keen Man at war. But, as Joe observes to his chagrin, and McGee astutely reveals, Harry’s skills as a saboteur and assassin reveal an underlying psychopathy that is as criminal as the atrocities he is avenging.

The wartime sections of The Antipodeans are powerfully evoked. Using a range of documentary sources and even incorporating actual historical figures such as Arch Scott, McGee creates a vivid portrait of the Italian resistance focused on the two families the Bonazzons and the Zanardis. The bravery and stoicism of these families, in the face of deadly reprisal from the occupying Germans, is memorably depicted and is the heart of the novel.

From these events, all manner of subsequent narrative twists and turns are revealed in McGee’s saga. The frequent time shifts in the novel are at times contorted, but, in order to manage the almost Sophoclean coincidences and revelations, the author must sometimes measure out his explanatory detail with an eyedropper. It undoubtedly ensures that some very big rabbits come out of some very big hats, but the novel’s strength  –  and ultimate appeal  –  is not in McGee’s theatrical legerdemain.

The Antipodeans reminds us of a theme that is frequently noted in New Zealand literature and sociological commentary: which is that geographical isolation and cultural privation creates a yearning for the world elsewhere. It was a 20th-century preoccupation, but is no less true today. For New Zealanders, to go abroad is an essential completion – it is not just OE, it is experience itself.

It was undoubtedly true for the generation of men who went overseas during WWII. That for many it proved a life-scarring experience is undeniable – and, in The Antipodeans, it is Harry Spence who returns displaced and hollow. But Joe Lamont’s story is the jubilant converse  –  a fantasy almost, of restoration by cultural transfusion. For 2014’s Clare Spence, ripped off in marriage, and in business, by Nicholas, her husband and Auckland real estate partner, the encounter with Renzo, the gallant physics professor, is also restorative – although McGee’s depiction of her is too hastily satiric and superficial to sit convincingly alongside his other characters.

This novel is a valentine to Italy, both past and present. Bruce Spence’s typewritten journal entries from 1976, somewhat awkwardly interpolated into the narrative, reveal a fatherless young man rescued and enriched by the paternal warmth of his Italian rugby hosts. His daughter is astonished when she sees her father weep for happiness, and we are told of another Bruce, the New Zealand Bruce, early in the novel: “He was rational man  –  no one had ever described him as emotional, unless coupled with the word ‘stunted’ ….”

McGee notes in his acknowledgements that he drew heavily on his own rugby experiences for the 1970s sections and refers to “my own village, Casale Sul Sile” as a source for location detail. This is not to suggest that Bruce Spence is an autobiographical depiction, but rather that the author has invested his novel with an affection and attention to historical and linguistic detail that is both tribute and celebration.

McGee has said that this novel was 30 years in the making. It was worth the effort and the wait. Even if at times unresolved, lopsided and clunky in its structure, The Antipodeans is rich in detail and narrative ambition. It brims with gusto and cuore and lifts an honest lid on some secret men’s business.

Murray Bramwell lives in Adelaide and is a theatre reviewer for The Australian.

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