Well crafted tale of life in small Otago town

South Island-bred and based Owen Marshall carefully and with quietly dignified humour outlines life in a provincial Otago town, writes Jessie Neilson.

Owen Marshall
Penguin Random House

Pat 'Pearly' Gates "liked to see decent intentions and decent people succeed, as he had himself, and he rarely doubted his own judgement. Pearly was his own role model''.

Mayor of a small North Otago town, as well as a real estate agent, he is used to being a high achiever, well, in debating, sports, and leadership anyhow, if not in the academic arena, and in the past had even been a rather successful rugby player for Otago.

Unfortunately he never quite made it into the All Blacks, but that of course was all thanks to a dodgy knee. He holds particular beliefs that passions should be reined in, in order to maintain a certain standard and amicable social relations. At school he had been head boy, and captain of the 1st XV. He has a pragmatic wife in Helen, and she is always ready to level his arrogance, to puncture his pomposity when deemed out of hand, and to remind him that he is just a "tin-pot small-town part-time'' mayor. Although their conversations often ramble on as "parallel verbal tracks'', they are both used to and content with that.

Pearly is 64, not as young or fit as he used to be. Time seems to be catching up with him and Helen, who had both seemed to live in an ongoing age of golden youth for a very long time.

Now he must contend with his niggling back problems and heightened cholesterol levels, but he is absolutely capable enough still to stand for mayor for a third term. After all, with it may come a gong, official recognition of his achievements.

Yet there is another candidate now in the running, Philip Utterspan, and with his prioritising of the environment and ecological concerns comes a growing popularity. Pearly is rightfully threatened. With his background in farming and outdoor sports he is a local lad, and he knows that you have to think about the economy first. He is getting tired of the same old complaints from petitioners to find funding for cycleways, and to deal with the freedom camping. And there are yet more discussions around the port development. He knows one just has to keep busy, tap dancing on the ice, as it were, always looking ahead.

Many of Pearly's working relationships are successful, as is his friendship with the ever-loyal Gumbo, the most enthusiastic member of the town's model aeroplane club. Gumbo can, without fail, be relied upon to be there for him. However, there is always the possibility of a person's confidence becoming shattered, even in one such as the mayor. Gradually, a number of incidents, perhaps small in themselves, work on Pearly until they are more than mere bothering doubts. Perhaps he is not as honourable as he has always assumed, perhaps even culpable in the situations in which he finds himself mired.

As one of our strongest and most successful writers of short stories, novels and poems, South Island-bred and based Owen Marshall carefully and with quietly dignified humour outlines life in a provincial Otago town. Marshall incrementally builds up small-town life, and the bustle, supposition, speculation, and all that it encompasses.

Pearly is a gentle and affable if stuck-in-his-ways main character. While not holding the keys to heaven, he knows he is gatekeeper of the smooth running of the town and its people, and it is up to him, with his benevolent smile, to figure out how to do this, faltering as he strides on.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.


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