Love as a Stranger by Owen Marshall – 2016

Love as a stranger

What a terribly human book!  Sarah meets Hartley when she is temporarily living in Auckland while her husband Robert undergoes Cancer treatment.  Hartley is a lawyer whose wife has died a couple of years before and who is despairing at “how little fulfilment he had experienced in his life”.  Sarah and Hartley strike up a friendship – they are both in situations where for each other they are a welcome distraction from the recent sadness of their lives.  But Sarah isn’t party to the creepy female body shape observations of Hartley, nor the details of his slightly unstable past that unfold for the reader – until it is too late.  What is a welcome distraction for Sarah becomes an all-consuming obsession for Hartley; the epigraph of the book is a quotation from Pedro Calderon de la Barca: “When love is not madness, it is not love”.  Love as a stranger perfectly captures the delusions that one person can project onto another, supporting the theory that ‘love’ is often more about the subject – the person ‘in love’ – than the object of their devotion.  I really liked the device of the reader seeing things from all three points of view – Hartley’s one of self-pity: “I’ve got bugger all except a son on the other side of the world”, Sarah’s growing regrets: ““She was beginning to realise the joy and pleasure she had with Hartley, had a counterweight of anxiety and confusion”, and Robert’s focus on cataloguing photographs of his past to try and re-align himself for the future.  It is finely written, at times quite menacing, the latter heightened by the book’s design, with the chapters prefaced with looming male images.  It was also interesting to read about a love affair between older people – where experience has shown them that “Hurting is a sign of being alive … Only kids think love is about happiness”, thus adding further complexity to motives and reactions.  I was puzzled by a couple of seeming errors, Hartley popping up in Robert’s recollection of a time in Australia, and a United States Fish and Wildlife scientist hailing from Vancouver – but apart from this it was a thoroughly engaging read.

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