Drybread is Owen Marshall’s third novel, adding to an already rich body of work. His last novel, Harlequin Rex, won the Montana New Zealand Book Awards Deutz Medal for Fiction in 2000. Indeed, Marshall’s illustrious career as a writer, most notably of short stories, hardly needs recounting. Having written or edited a total of 21 books, he has won a multitude of awards, fellowships and prizes, and is often described as being one of New Zealand’s most beloved writers. This novel only confirms that reputation, continuing with the realist style and reverence for the Central Otago region which has established for Marshall such a wide and loyal following.
Drybread begins with the difficult homecoming of Penny Maine-King, originally from Central Otago, though more recently a resident of Sacramento, USA. Her return to a place containing so many terrible childhood memories is driven by fear and desperation, in defiance of a Californian court order giving custody of her child to her estranged husband. Her bolthole of choice is an old family bach, deep in the desolate country near the abandoned goldmining settlement called Drybread. In search of sympathy, and leverage, she reaches out to Theo, a journalist on a Christchurch newspaper, whom, she asks first to publicise her plight, and then to act on her behalf in her legal battle. Theo’s exclusive access to the story brings him professional rewards, though his increasing personal entanglement endangers both his professional objectivity and his emotional equilibrium.
I always feel that Owen Marshall likes his characters, or at the very least is sincerely interested in them, non-judgmental of their quirks and foibles. Theo is a fine example.
He is a reporter whose job is to manufacture an intimacy with a subject in order to enable scrutiny of some part of their lives, and then to disengage. This pattern of rapport followed by distance characterises both his professional and private relationships. His observation of Penny becomes more complex because it reminds him painfully of his own failed marriage to Stella, a past he cannot manage to forget:
You could leave a woman, or have a woman leave you, but you could never fully abandon the experience of the relationship, for that isn’t amenable to conscious choice. Like the time of childhood, it may seem to have concerned a different person, but it held its own power nonetheless, and had an independent influence on all that followed.
For Theo is haunted by his past. He believes that “life seeks continuity”, and finds in each of his actions and emotions a link to earlier events, places, people, fears. This is neither so clichéd nor clumsy as a “return of the repressed”. Rather, he sees within his life an often illogical series of cross-references, a “collage of experience” which shapes and frames the way he sees his present. These “memory gusts” defeat his best efforts to package his life as neatly as he would a story: “No matter how much you tidy things away in your mind, life continues to make its own links, mostly unwelcome.”
In comparison with Theo’s likeability, by far the most powerful character of the novel is the land itself. The Maniototo, bounded by the Dunstan Range, is an iconic landscape which dominates and indeed opens the novel, in one of the finest first sentences I’ve read: “The Maniototo is burnt country in summer, and the bare, brown expanse of it has a subdued shimmer.”
The characters don’t actually live in this evocative place, but travel to and through it. Astutely, Marshall leaves the region largely unpeopled, its only population having long gone, or being clearly transient. The land endures in Drybread, its nature fixed and permanent, while those who dare to inhabit it impose upon it their own fears and dreams. The bare and stripped land takes on the emotional hues of its observers, who variously see its emptiness as either lonely, or rich in possibility, as either menacing, or as a haven from a chaotic world in its openness. Similarly, Penny’s bolthole is a sod-and-wood cottage, basic and unglamorous, which shifts between being seen as either a coffin or a sanctuary. Behind the transient, fickle shimmer of human perception, the land remains, independent and impervious.
Throughout, what strikes one first, last and most about Drybread, and indeed all Owen Marshall’s work, is the class of the writing. The prose is deliberate, finely wrought and crafted, dense and weighty with meaning. Language is respected for both its possibility and its precision, and it is used to create lives so real they exceed the page.
The characteristics which have brought Owen Marshall so many accolades and awards as a short story writer claim the time and attention of the reader in Drybread, even more so in a longer narrative. It is a novel ripe with images, layers, nuances, details. Adjectives abound, but always the right one, evoking scenes, smells, emotions, all in their particularity: who cannot conjure up the sound of a motorbike “with a sound like a fat man’s rich, bronchial cough”? Eminently readable, without ever being smarty-pants, each sentence demands re-reading, so as not to miss a thing.
Consider this paragraph, describing a shared cup of coffee between Theo and a colleague:
They were having coffee at their shared office window. The alley below was temporarily blocked by the van of a squat woman who was delivering bags of cat litter to the back of the pet shop. The inside of Theo’s mug was stained to a tobacco brown, from having been rinsed only and put back amid the jumble of the draining tray. From farther back in the large reporters’ room, where the overhead lights were always on and the hum of computers was a corporate tinnitus, came the snatches of talk among colleagues, and the more pronounced voices of those speaking on the phone, unconsciously compensating for distance.
Marshall’s narrator begins by establishing the relationship between the participants of his scene: they share an office space, but also share a more sociable activity – coffee. The professional and the personal are brought together, yet the meeting-point between the two is carefully noted for its effects on the relationship. He observes the surroundings with precision (a “squat” woman, the specific hue of “tobacco brown”, the latter perhaps also a gentle reference to the stereotypical habits of journalists). Yet his observations aren’t restricted to what is seen, but also to what is known. So he doesn’t just comment on what’s happening now in this place, but what has happened and what is yet to happen in the future: the alley is only “temporarily” blocked, while the overhead lights are “always” on; Theo’s cup is stained by its previous treatment, though that, too, is implied to be a reaction to the context of a jumbled draining tray and the habits of colleagues, rather than necessarily indicative of usual domestic habits. The narrator tells us both what’s ordinary and what’s abnormal in the scene he sees. The moment is encumbered and saturated by the viewer’s previous experiences, and similarly by his expectations of the future. This is Theo’s “collage of experience” in action.
Simply, then, so elegantly understated, Owen Marshall’s writing doesn’t just tell a story, it embodies it, uniting theme and form. Drybread is a fine piece of writing, the work of a master craftsman.
Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.