by Owen Marshall is a novel in which very little happens.
It's a love story of course, the bare facts of which are now well-known. Conny, the much younger wife of prominent politician and businessman William Larnach, falls in love with his son, Dougie. When William learns of the affair, he shoots himself in a committee room at Parliament.
This is a slow burning love story, told in the alternating voices of Dougie and Conny. It burns so slowly that the affair doesn't get off the ground until almost the halfway point in the book. I found this glacial pace frustrating at times, but then this was a Victorian love affair of the most scandalous kind. All that buttoned up restraint and unrequited lust is no doubt realistic given the consequences at stake.
The long set up also serves as a window on life among a certain sector of society in Victorian New Zealand. Marriage to William offers Conny greater social freedom and an escape from the strictures of life as a 35-year-old spinster at home with her brother and sisters. As the wife of a prominent businessman and politician, Conny is accorded a certain respect in society and has "the right to converse on a broader range of topics". She works actively in support of women's franchise and stands beside William on the hustings, offering him advice and asserting her views as to the company they keep.
Dougie's story tells of his struggle to forge an independent identity in his father's shadow, while managing the family estate he expects to inherit. He passes time fishing or hunting, socialising at the club, or (prior to falling in love with Conny) keeping company with a woman he has no intention of marrying, lifting her skirts in snatched moments when her mother is out of the room. "'Is this all you come for?' she asked me on my last visit, and burst into tears when my answer didn't convince her otherwise," writes Dougie. "What guilt there is in such accusation, for the truth is in every other aspect I prefer my male friends."
The dramatic and isolated Larnach Castle offers plenty of atmosphere and Dougie and Conny are soon caught up in the thrill and excitement of their forbidden love, observing each other with the secrecy their closeness demands. "I became so conscious of Conny's presence that even the traces of her scent in a room were a difficult distraction, and when we were in society I had to remind myself to address other people and not just her, to look at other women and not entirely at her."
This focus on emotion and relationships is vintage Marshall, who admits his interest lies in mood and character rather than plot and action. Frequent references to real life events or political manoeuvrings lend credibility and place the affair in its historical context, but these are mere backdrop to the emotional wrangling between Conny and Dougie. Amid the rush and exhilaration, the tension heightens as the impossibility of their love and the dreadful potential consequences of exposure become increasingly clear.
The Larnachs is a slow and sensitive tale, building quietly to its inevitable tragic conclusion. I wouldn't call it a page-turner, but it is a very human story and an engaging glance at aspects of New Zealand society just over a century ago.