The Larnachs by Owen Marshall
Vintage, $39.99

One of the most interesting things about reading a historical novel is working out what period detailing preoccupies the novelist and is used as a means of anchoring it to its era.

Everyone is different of course. In his latest novel, Owen Marshall uses the cultural and political history of the colony to set his time (the late-19th century) and The Camp, as the Larnach family called what has now become known as Larnach Castle, as his location.

The Larnachs revolves around the relationship between William Larnach's third wife, Constance, and his son by his first wife, Douglas. I couldn't establish - in a very unreliable Google search - whether the affair between the two was, in fact, a reality or simply part of the Larnach mythology, though the former seems most likely and is the stance Marshall has taken.

The story, told from the day of Conny and William's marriage to its quietly tragic ending, is recounted by Conny and Dougie. Although a love story, The Larnachs is no bodice ripper, though there's a fair bit of "love making" in it.

Instead, it's a muted and emotional journey through a repressed and somewhat unrealised relationship. In short, it's a grown-up love story of people trying to be as unselfish as possible with a very clear view of society and its judgments.

For me, it was this very deep and beautifully realised understanding of human nature that made this novel work. "She had an uncertain, almost desperate forwardness, and hadn't laughed once since we'd reached her home," Dougie says of one of his not so terribly carnal conquests.

"I had no intention of seeing her again; already I was regretting having come so close. How sudden the change had been from talkative and laughing companion, to a thin, longing woman in the dark asking to be felt."

It's also nicely visceral, and therefore recognisably human, as the following extract, which is Conny's response to William once her affair with Dougie is in full flight, so nicely illustrates: "Small things, such as the hairs growing in his ears, the crackling of his knuckles, the sleep residue at the corner of his eyes, and his open-mouthed breathing and puffing moustache, irk me now. The tolerance of such things, which is part of love, has gone." Dougie is kinder in his revulsion, but then he's trapped only by blood, not marriage.

The Larnachs is a thoughtful, tender love story with equal doses of sensibleness on Conny's part and repressed angst on Dougie's and an awful lot of lovely, restrained writing by Marshall.

* Kelly Ana Morey is an award-winning writer whose most recent novel is Quinine (Huia).