The Larnachs

22:53, Aug 07 2011


Owen Marshall

Vintage, $39.99

The bare bones of the story of William Larnach are widely known – he was a prominent businessman and politician who had three wives, the last of whom, Conny, had an affair with his son Dougie. Following business difficulties William took his own life in his parliamentary office. The castle he built on Otago peninsula is a landmark.

This book opens with the marriage of Constance to William in Wellington in 1891.

Owen Marshall tells the story in the first person, in the alternating voices of Conny and Dougie. Conny talks about all aspects of her life with humour, poise and a very clear sense of self.


She is a modern woman of her time – intelligent, cultured, well-educated, an independent thinker and an accomplished pianist. She is passionate about music, politically aware and approving of the women's rights movement.

She enters her marriage with her eyes wide open, accepting with maturity the difficulties of coming into a family as a third wife and stepmother. Yet she is optimistic and enjoys her position and the company of her successful, happy and generous husband.

Throughout the years her relationship with Dougie strengthens, while she feels a growing sense of disappointment in her marriage as the novelty and promise of the earlier years wane.

Dougie has had a difficult childhood, suffering greatly from the loss of his mother and an unhappy schooling in England.

Managing "The Camp", as the peninsula property was known, Dougie leads a comfortable life of farming, riding, and socialising with his friends.

Conny is a bright light compared with the young women of his acquaintance – older, intelligent, beautiful, kind and a conversationalist – he is drawn to her and their friendship grows to become the intense love affair that is seemingly impossible for them to resolve.

Their story is set against the fascinating background of the changing times of late 19th century – the growing suffragette movement in Christchurch, large-scale land deals, the first frozen lamb shipment from Dunedin, the politics of Seddon and Ward, and the introduction of old-age pensions.

Details of Dunedin's business and cultural life and the famous early families such as the Hockens and Cargills are skilfully interwoven into the story.

This book cements Owen Marshall's place as one of New Zealand's foremost writers – he is a true wordsmith; each word seems placed with precision, yet they flow freely.

The first person narrative gives Conny's and Dougie's voices freshness and immediacy. The formality of phrasing places the characters in their time.

In his short stories Owen Marshall has always seemed to convey the essence of his characters, both male and female, with apparent ease. Here he brings warmth, empathy and depth to the characters that brings them to life with convincing authenticity.

The rich historical detail, the relationships, the lovers' dilemma, and the tragic outcome have been seamlessly melded into a perfect novel. It is stunning.

I savoured it and will re-read it, but first I'm planning to join the tourists lining up to visit the Camp to see the places and spaces that were William's, Conny's and Dougie's.

The Timaru Herald