Carnival Sky by Owen Marshall (Vintage 2014)
My friend Maggie calls Owen Marshall the Chekhov of Timaru, justifiably so given his incredibly successful career, while I refer to him as the Big OM, and my father calls him “your mate the writer” mainly because he can’t remember anyone’s name (he can usually remember where they live and who they are related to, and what they were up to twenty years ago, but a name - no), but he’s also ‘my mate’ because I did Owen’s fiction writing course at Aoraki Polytechnic in 2001. Doing the course was for me, a moment of personal transformation, and Owen’s latest novel deals with the same theme.
Sheff is a jaded journalist in Auckland who is trying to deal with the flux of print journalism. He is also increasingly frustrated that tabloid fodder is valued over the informed investigative journalism that he writes. Amongst the concerns about his profession, Sheff is also dealing with (and reeling from) personal tragedies, and his father is dying. Sheff decides to chuck in his job, and after a bit of dithering, goes to his home town Alexandra with his sister, to be with his parents. It’s while Sheff is in Alexandra that he starts his emotional transformation.
In some respects, the novel reminded me of the film adaptation of Maurice Gee’s In My Father’s Den, mainly because of the film’s Central Otago location (and also because it’s a son returning to his home town). Central Otago is a place of weather extremes – stinking hot in summer and hoar frosts in winter. Being so far inland gives it a sense of isolation, containment, and acridness. Lloyd Jones notes in his writing that he is interested in coastal dwellers because they are continually looking out to the coast, to possibilities and otherness, whereas a Central Otago location, absent of a coast line, suggests that characters are hemmed in by the hills which means they only have themselves to look at, and into. This is done extremely well in Owen’s novel. The contained physical landscape parallels with the family’s sense of stasis as they nurse their father/husband, and essentially, wait for him to die. The containment of the physical landscape and family circumstances allows Sheff to get to know his home town, his family, and re-evaluate his life.
Gee’s novel, and the film of the same name, is about puritanical repression and the fatal consequences of it. Owen’s novel does deal with puritanical repression, in terms of the male characters inability to be emotionally present and available, but it’s not as intense; it is more hopeful. At the end of each chapter there are little vignettes where Sheff recollects incidents from his past, and reveals his dreams for the future. The vignettes are at times humorous, and show Sheff’s depth of feeling. I really enjoyed the succinct incidents, and how they show the randomness of memory at such an emotionally fraught time.
While Sheff is undergoing an emotional transformation, the physical is also represented. Sheff is very clumsy and seems to attract random physical accidents to his person, from nosebleeds to getting smacked with a cricket ball. The other sense of physicality comes from Sheff’s father, Warwick, who is dying from cancer, whose physical presence is diminishing daily. The other physical presences in the novel are the stones that Warwick polishes. Bowls of rose quartz, jasper and obsidian, to name a few, littered the house until Warwick’s wife insisted that he keep a bowl of his favourite stones in his sickroom. Warwick likes the stones because they start out as something ordinary but can be polished up to gradually reveal the colour, the inner beauty of the stone. When the light hits the bowl, Warwick says it looks like a carnival sky. The saying, and title of the novel, seems to combine the beauty of the landscape with the revelation of an inner emotional life.
The only niggles I had were that Sheff seemed a bit older than 44 at the beginning of the novel, but as the story continued he seemed to act his age, and I warmed up to him, and felt for him. Also, I thought it was a bit odd that he didn’t seem to have a cellphone to use to get help when his car broke down. These are very minor niggles and were soon forgotten once Sheff revealed himself more. Carnival Sky is a book that examines middle-age, and the potential for transformation. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and its gentle unravelling of Sheff’s emotional life, his attempts to reconnect with his family, and to make new meaningful connections in middle age.