Ticking on by, Catherine Robertson

Carnival Sky
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $38.00
ISBN 9781775535827

The White Clock
Owen Marshall
Otago University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781877578632

Both of Marshall’s latest works centre on confrontations with mortality, and both do a fine job of showing that these are not always occasions for personal truth-seeking and comforting reminiscence, but also for less praiseworthy responses – resentment, selfishness, anger and outright head-in-the-sand denial.

Sheff Davy, the protagonist of Carnival Sky is being pulled along in the wake of his divorce, the consequence of him and his wife being unable to cope with the loss of their baby daughter to cot death. Sheff has not come to terms with his grief, but has instead suppressed it and, as a result, is living a life of inertia – in the double sense that he is apathetic and listless, and that he will continue to move in the same straight, dull disengaged line – “Nothing of threat, and nothing of delight” – until acted on by an outside force. Though Sheff is said to feel “appalled at the thought of spending the future the same way as he’d spent the past”, he is more unwilling than unable to change course. Despite his “ordinary, maybe gawky” outside, he has formed an intractable core (Sheff is short for Sheffield, and there is an element of steel in his personality). He resists and resents, and ignores all signs and omens, which are thrown at him so constantly that it borders on Looney Tunes farce. Marshall has fun with this, even while his character cries “Why always me?” Sheff suffers dog bite, toaster shock, seagull shit and more. His subconscious – or some higher life force – sends these manifestations of his own anger and shame to prod and provoke him into action. It frightens him with reminders of his own mortality – nosebleeds, scaly patches on his skin (Auden’s “shocking disease”), aches and pains – and taunts him with unfulfilled sexual desire.

Sheff refuses to take the hint. Even when he quits his job, it’s more cop-out than principled stand. He remains unmoved and unmoving until a true force to be reckoned with, his sister Georgie, insists that Sheff travel with her to Alexandra to spend time with their dying father. Sheff demurs, but no employment means no more excuses, and home he goes to witness another death he cannot prevent. Backed into this little, isolated corner of New Zealand, Sheff’s evasion tactics begin to fail. He is confronted daily by “The loneliness that people obscured for most of their lives, but which is exposed at the end”, and by his own “cowardice that arose from helplessness”. He is beset by memories: of his father, his own childhood, his marriage and his daughter during her short life. Most of these are presented as vignettes at the end of each chapter, their brevity emphasising how difficult it is for Sheff to recall these moments of loss or misunderstanding, or opportunities never taken.

Sheff’s prodding subconscious ups the ante, escalating through cricket ball strike and supermarket cashier vomit to its final incarnation as a real human being, Pamela Rudge, who threatens him with physical harm that she seems quite capable of inflicting. Here, Sheff, for once, has a right to be resentful. Pamela Rudge is warning him away from Jessica, an old school friend of Georgie’s. Sheff fancies her, but has no chance of sleeping with her because, unknown to most in Alexandra, she has recently come out as a lesbian. Jessica becomes the catalyst for Sheff being forced to find the courage for a genuine confrontation – the Rudge creature is one obstacle he cannot go round – and for him to acknowledge that his frequent fantasies and memories of sex symbolise less a desire for physical release, a “spice for a life otherwise too bland”, and more a longing to regain intimacy.

Jessica also identifies the root of Sheff’s shame and anger. There was nothing he could have done to prevent his daughter’s death, and there is nothing he can do to help his father. But, as Jessica points out, “even a losing struggle is a form of catharsis”. Sheff had no chance to fight for his daughter and now his question becomes – does he have a second chance to help his father?

The writing in this novel is superb – Marshall’s control over every sentence is faultless. He uses humour well – Sheff spies a young man in the medical clinic who “may as well have had a placard around his neck that read, Sports injury: I will live forever” – and he makes a quiet story suspenseful. There is a Graham Greenesque quality to the themes: Sheff as a man wanting more but feeling unworthy or unable, self-delusion versus self-knowledge, and the possibility of redemption in a world that seems incurably bleak and empty. The town of Alexandra acts as a metaphor for the last – a community hanging together in a harsh, isolating landscape.

A minor complaint is that Marshall occasionally presents the psychological analysis in too authorial a way; it does not come across as the character’s own insight. Another, entirely personal, disappointment is with the ending. Sheff’s final confrontation is, as he admits, “nugatory”, almost childish. He makes no great leap forward: “Things were … better than they had been in a long time, and that was enough to be going on with.” This is realistic, of course. Sheff is an ordinary man, not a mythic hero, and it is enough to ask that he is able to come back to himself, more aware, more accepting – to arrive where he started and know the place for the first time.

But Sheff’s father’s lifelong hobby has been polishing gemstones. He has no great rationale for his abiding love, only that when the stones were on the windowsill “sometimes the sun would strike just right and make a sudden blaze”. It would have been an extra pleasure to read an ending that blazed, even if just for a moment.

The White Clock takes us back to Alexandra, with the opening poem of the same title. The clock, large and ever-present on the hillside above the town, provides both an unwelcome reminder of mortality and a stern reproof to those who have not made the most of their lives. It is, in the excellent last line, “implacable in ticking us off”.

The poem sets the tone for this collection, which varies but is skewed less to the positive and more to the titles of two of the poems, “Downbeat” and “Disenchanted”. Self-deprecation comes across as defensive (“I am perverse enough to write a poem”), scholarly references read snootily, and there’s the rather peevish pomposity you find in letters to the editor written by men of a certain age: “Our fairytales are all rewritten / deconstructed in some feminist or ivory tower”. But that’s an author’s privilege. Why shouldn’t Marshall be allowed a grump or two about the world, and about growing old? Why shouldn’t he “find more sustenance / in melancholy than in humour”?

There are many affirming poems here, too, where the sentiment is poignant and unselfconscious, and the subjects, as in “Biblio Interruptus”, quietly and beautifully observed. In poems such as “Crossing Duty” and “Tortoise and Hare”, we get a glimpse of the desire to blaze “within the headlights’ glorious flare”. The collection ends on a note of delight (albeit with a tinge of melancholy for lost youth) with “Small Child on a Trampoline”, where the girl and we are uplifted in a “perfect instant” with “hands outstretched as stars”. Plenty to enjoy, particularly if you identify with the urge to be a grouch that seems to overtake all of us when we realise our youth has well and truly ticked on by.


Catherine Robertson is the author of three novels and is the chair of the Wellington branch of the NZSA.

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