Owen Marshall - Love as a stranger

‘the writer is a great seducer’[1] Natalie Goldberg states in one of her many books on the craft of writing.


The morning I read that quote I began Owen Marshall’s ‘Love as a stranger’.  Owen Marshall, the master of writing character, of creating rich stories without too much action; his stories don’t contain car chases or murders – Owen Marshall shows the richness and complexity of every day life. This book made me realise that he is, indeed, a master of seduction.


Love as a stranger is easy to read yet hard to forget; Marshall caused me to reconsider my view on affairs. If your long-term partner is physically unable to share aspects of life that are truly important to you, if he’s too ill to make love, to walk, to explore - is it wrong to find another companion?


Marshall takes us into the growing relationship between the two main characters, the reader is privvy to the thoughts of both, and can see how the drama unfolds.


It’s a drama, however, not because of the affair itself, but by the vastly different needs and expectations of the two. Sarah is well settled in her life, in her 30+ year marriage, children, wide circle of friends and interests. Yes she’s challenged by the effect that her husband’s long-term serious illness has on their relationship. I don’t read that she has doubts about her marriage, or any intention of leaving it. The affair shows her the extend of loss caused by the illness, but it also shows her the depth of connection she has with her husband, and the richness of her life.


Harvey, on the other hand, is needy. His emotionally deprived childhood and an emotionally dissatisfactory marriage have left him lonely. His son is far away, his mental stability is fragile following the death of his wife two years earlier. He’s working only a couple of days a week, and has ample time to dream of the perfect life with the perfect woman.  He seems to have no friends, no interests that keep him from obsessing about Sarah.


Marshall shows hints of Harvey’s mental instability from the beginning. The reader follows along, experiences how Sarah’s joy of spending time with Harvey is subtly, slowly overtaken by a feeling of being suffocated by his needs.


McCrystal’s review finds reason for Harvey’s need in his deprived childhood. I dare to differ – at 60 Harvey, with a professional career and no scarcity of financial resources had ample opportunity for personal development, to leave the deprived childhood behind. Harvey blames others for his emotional void; his father, his dead wife, now he wants Sarah to save him. At the same time he refuses to hear and accept what Sarah, the object of his obsession, wants, needs, asks of him. He ignores her requests, insists on constant reassurance; his need is overbearing.


Owen Marshall seduced me to reflect on my view on affairs, following Sarah’s actions and thoughts. I now understand how Sarah slipped into the affair, I feel empathy, and admire her determination and stamina to end it.


Hartley, on the other hand, is a well depicted manipulator. While he might have brought Sarah joy at the beginning, his obsession is terrifying.  He stalks her, and without respect for her needs, her wishes, her husband, her family – he wants her away from all those people dear to her. He inveigles his way into a stable, if challenged relationship to satisfy his needs, without seeing the person who is the object of his obsession.


It’s a brilliant book – a fabulous example on how reading fiction increases empathy in its capacity of allowing me to see the world, and specific events, through the eyes of another.


Further reviews are here

John McCrystal in Noted

Shiobhan Harvey in Stuff

Elizabeth Coleman in takahe

[1] p 92 ‘Thunder and Lightning’, Natalie Goldberg, Bantam paperback 2001

All, Book ReviewHella Bauer