Book review: Carnival Sky

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Owen Marshall's gentle style gives his characters all that's needed. Photo / Bruce Nicholson
Owen Marshall's gentle style gives his characters all that's needed. Photo / Bruce Nicholson

Carnival Sky is, in part, about a midlife crisis, albeit a very muted one; it's also about loss and family, grief and, most of all, it's about letting go.

The action opens with our protagonist, Sheff, a dissatisfied chief reporter on a major metropolitan daily, making the big call to leave his cosy newspaper job, his media cronies and the endless grind, without any clear idea of where he's going.

At 43, with some impressive awards behind him, he's had enough of arguing what constitutes the day's big stories - certainly not leading with the tale of a disembowelled pregnant llama - but, as he's constantly reminded, a newspaper's first job is to stay in business and, if that means pandering to tabloid tastes, so be it. And when he's reminded for the umpteenth time that his own opinions diverge from the popular public appetite, he decides to hand in his notice and travel the world.

His wife is living with someone else, the death of their baby having driven them apart, and he's ripe for reinvention. But Warwick, Sheff's dear but distant father, an accountant who lives in Alexandra, is dying of cancer.

And, like a good stew, all the ingredients are assembled for a hearty story about what it is to be a son, a brother and a man, a man who is no longer a husband nor a father.

Early in the piece, newspapers get a bit of a going over, the times they are a-changing and not just because of the internet but because, in Sheff's opinion, corporate expectations are corroding the fourth estate.

Relationships are also put under the microscope and Marshall's gentle, elegant writing gives the characters and their dilemmas all the oxygen the story needs to catch alight.

It's not a big bang, more a slow, simmering account of real life in the midst of encroaching death.

Big themes are treated delicately - mortality and memory, grief and self-discovery - and, although the book is, at its heart, about a man in the midst of a crisis, Carnival Sky also explores the universal pain many adults feel when faced with losing a parent.

Returning to the family home for their father's last weeks, Sheff's relationship with his sister Georgie is movingly investigated. Marshall writes about the subtle one-upmanship that can exist between siblings, how, despite growing up together, brothers and sisters can feel so disconnected as adults.

Once Sheff is ensconced with his sister and mother in Alexandra - the landscape a character in its own right - all manner of childhood memories bubble to the surface.

Recollections of childhood pilfering, flower shows, family trips and holidays merge with the ever-present pain at the loss of his baby daughter, causing everything to ebb, flow and blend as the family face up to Warwick's imminent death.

For some reason, wherever Sheff goes, trouble seems to dog him. He's harassed, vomited on, knocked down and often confused. But there are no histrionics; this is a Kiwi male's meltdown and, as the family watch their frail patriarch drift away, Sheff questions his own place in the world, his own mortality.

Georgie, Sheff's oncologist sister, nails it when she explains that most of us aren't especially afraid of death, it's the actual process of dying that scares us.

Carnival Sky focuses on the subtle and distressing shifts that take place when children become their parents' carers and have to help a loved one during their most vulnerable moments. Imagine coming to terms with the prospect of helping the person who gave you life find a dignified end to their own existence.

The small cast confront the meaning of life (and death) and learn how, in times of grief, the search for normality is sometimes all that's left to us. It's also about holding tight to the things we hold dear and letting go of the things that hold us back.

Owen Marshall earned his reputation as one of our brightest literary stars long ago and Carnival Sky reinforces his place in that firmament.

Carnival Sky by Owen Marshall (Vintage $37.99).

- NZ Herald

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