Review: Love as a Stranger, Owen Marshall

Love as a Stranger, Owen Marshall
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Love as a Stranger, Owen Marshall

Love as a Stranger 
Owen Marshall 
Vintage, $38

Owen Marshall is widely acknowledged as this country's preeminent short story writer. It's his skill for accurately charting the nuances, affirmations and dysfunctions of human behaviour and relationships which is often the hallmark of his stories' excellence.

As the author's new book, Love as a Stranger proves, he effortlessly and expertly translates this dexterity into the longer novel form. 

Marshall's latest release journeys us through the romance between two ordinary outsiders — overlooked legal clerk Hartley and Sarah, the wife of a terminal patient. It's a character-focused book, the author turning his astute eye to the telling subtleties of these distinct personalities. 

Love-struck Hartley, for instance, is crafted as a mix of proactive romancer and reluctant confessor, his fraught past which includes the death of his wife, an estranged son and past failed trysts only slowly revealed.

Meanwhile Sarah is upfront, compassionate and deeply grounded in respecting the needs of her suffering husband. Pragmatism meets idealism: this pair cancels each other's faults out, making their unusual 'late in life' love affair positive, perfectly understandable and compulsively readable.

More than this, though, Love as a Stranger's success relies upon the details of the relationship itself. For Sarah and Hartley's connection has a strong physicality which is sexual but also platonic, casual and apparently coincidental.

From their first meeting in a cemetery to Hartley's fastidious, extensive selection of picnic items for their surreptitious meetings, the relationship minutiae brings us up close and personal to it and reinforces the very real way in which passion grows and wanes.

Along the way, themes of attraction and compulsion, loss, jealousy and dysfunction dominate. 

Love as a Stranger starts as a sweet, albeit mature narrative about love, but it grows fabulously into a well-plotted study of the dark sides of human psychology.

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