50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Owen Marshall

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.




Harlequin Rex by Owen Marshall (Penguin)

Montana Book Awards 2000


Owen Marshall writes:

Harlequin Rex was written in the later 1990’s and had its origins in the publicity given to new and threatening pandemics such as Ebola and Zika.  I wondered how New Zealand would cope with an event of that nature, and more importantly how it would affect the individuals suffering from such a disease, and those about them.  As I wrote the novel however and the characters developed substance, the more subtle issue of guilt became the dominant theme.

The protagonist, David, is a young man with many natural advantages, but largely through his own lack of principle and resolution he causes harm to himself and others, and finds himself unconsciously seeking redemption in an isolated institution in the Marlborough Sounds set up to treat those afflicted with a sinister and baffling disease, Harlequin Rex.

As with most of my prose work, the novel is essentially a character study rather than a plot orientated  piece, and the issues moral rather than political or economic.

I had begun the novel when in 1996 I was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton, France, and continued with it while there.  At times I was aware of a sense of incongruity and disassociation as I sat at a desk in the Cote d’ Azur with the Mediterranean before me and wrote of New Zealanders in far off Mahikipawa and Havelock.

I was pleased of course, and surprised, to have the novel awarded the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2000 Montana Book Awards, and grateful to the judges who saw some merit in it.  Some years later while in France with ten other New Zealand writers as part of the Les Belles Etrangeres tour organised by the French Ministry of Culture, I had the satisfaction of seeing the novel in the Paris bookshops under its French title of Les hommes fanes.

My love of the short story is abiding, but the critical reception of Harlequin Rex encouraged me to write further novels, and also to publish poetry, as well as short fiction.  Every genre has its particular artistic rewards and demands, and I have found the decision to challenge myself as a writer both salutary and stimulating.



Excerpt from Harlequin Rex (Penguin, 1999)




From each place known well we take something when we go, and we leave something too. Both acquisition and sacrifice are utterly beyond our control.
……..The bus came over a small rise fringed with red hot poker plants, and there was Havelock, the dipping main street, little changed at first glance from the place David had often visited as a boy. As well as those recollections, he couldn’t deflect the odd association that always arose: Havelock Dark pipe tobacco, which his grandfather had smoked in a silver-collared Peterson, deeply curved. Towards the end of his grandfather’s working life, the pipe had bene an excuse for a breather, so that old George could straighten his back in the yards, or the shearing shed, or turn off the tractor and allow the sound beats to fade like wings into the distance.
……..Havelock – with its one short stretch of clumsy, honest buildings, the steep, bush-clad hill behind it tipping towards the much longer stretch of the mudflats at the head of Mahau Sound. The police station, the post office, the town hall, were bravely painted. The hall had four thin pillars at its entrance as a pioneer nod to the classical culture of social superiors.
……..As the bus slowed further, he noticed the little town had put on a pretence of finery to attract the tourists. A gem-cutter’s, an antique shop, a fishing and marine travel centre, the Pelorus Jack Café, the backpackers’ hostel. A large wooden building had its frontage covered with a mural of what looked like a tuatara, and the length of a tin fence provided undulation for a dolphin and the words, ‘Sea Kayaking’, as if the speed at which most people passed through the place meant that only the largest scale and simplest advertising message would register.
……..But he left the bus, the only passenger not going on to Nelson, bought a Coke at the Four Square, sat on the worn steps of the wooden Methodist church, which had been deserted by the living, and become a place to celebrate the dead – a museum with photographs of whiskers and waistcoats, and the hulking tools of the logging days. And as he sat there quietly, the original Havelock, the real substance of the place, peaceful among the haunches of the hills, was clear again. The old-fashioned boats and derelict cars in people’s sections, the weatherboard sheds askew with age, lawns, vegetable gardens, an armchair in a porch – all within a hand’s reach of the road. And the camellia bushes which, in their season, spread red and pink flowers upon the footpath of the main street.
……..He bought egg and chive sandwiches, walked down from the short slope of a side street to the sea and turned away from the camping ground and new, rather incongruous marina, towards the working part of the shoreline. Small builders, one-man businesses, fishing boats propped by timber on dry land so that their deep hulls were revealed, a rusting pontoon, a loosely tethered barge that brought sheep in from the island farms, and yards close to the sea for those sheep, which added their warm, dungy smell to the air. The tide was going out, yet most of the mudflats were still covered, and the sea had corralled in the corner between shore and breakwater a jostle of driftwood, plastic bottles, nylon twine, cellophane bags, broken angles of blue and white polystyrene, beer cans, a light bulb, sodden stalks of rushes and grass, and the body of a small, short-haired dog with its swollen stomach tight as a drum. And further out on the shallowly covered mudflat were cast whole trees with black shags on the bleached branches. Along the shoreline away from the town were rushes; grey and russet streaked, and also in stiff, slightly raised patches on the mud.
……..David ate his sandwiches by the side of a boat-building firm, Nottage & Son, whose business premises were the size of a double garage. The double wooden doors were open, and showed a clinker-built dinghy, bottom up on hurdles. Nobody was working there; nobody came. He sat in the sun with his back supported by the warm outside timbers of the shed, and wondered how the Harlequin epidemic and the Slaven Centre related to what was around him: how the local people took to something which, as far as they were concerned, may as well have come from another planet.
……..The road to Mahakipawa was a diagonal cut on the hill further down the sound. A rural delivery went through each day, he’d been told; from Havelock past the scattered houses in the small bays and on to Picton.
……..Everything to do with people was at the low altitude: the unbuttoned straggle of buildings, the few roads, the launches and yachts, some of the small ones lopsided on the mud, three young people after flounders in the channels, a farm-house or two in the middle distance on the flat at the head of the sound. The bare, flashing arm of water was very blue. On both sides the hills rose in ridges and gullies and flanks of rough grass, piggern, broom and gorse. There was bush on the high slopes behind the town. The skylines were unfettered strokes where the hills met the sky.
……..David threw the crusts to the gulls, and walked back up the short road to the township. He had the feeling that always came to him in such quiet, settled places. A feeling that time itself was eddying there, and more, that some immense, quiet suction was at work, so that things might well drift from the surface of the landscape, from the warm roads, from the mudflats, the clustered, quiet town, from the lazy paddocks, into the endless, pale sky.
……..The wooden post office had a low door and facings freshly painted in green and red. David thought maybe he could catch the rural delivery man there. ‘Give him a ring yourself, to be on the safe side,’ the post office woman said, ‘but he gets away from here about one thirty most times. Use our phone behind the counter.’ The woman had tracksuit pants with two yellow stripes down the outside of the legs, and a white T-shirt proclaiming MAINLAND KIWI. She had a bright pink scar, or birthmark, at the corner of one eye, as if she had shed a single scalding tear. ‘Come far?’ she said to show good intent, rather than curiosity.
……..‘Through from Blenheim today, but I’ve been further south.’
……..‘Bryce doesn’t mind taking someone over usually, if he’s got room. There’s a bus comes through from the PIcton side later today, but you’ve missed the only one this way.’
……..David told her that he was heading for the Slaven Centre. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘He calls in there all right. It’s getting to be a big place. Look,’ she said, when he explained he had work there, ‘why don’t I ring him for you? I’m Bev. With you working over there, I’ll get used to your name in no time. I do all the sorting for the centre’s mail right here. I know all the staff names, though never met most of them. You’re not a doctor, though?’
……..‘You just sit down in the sun by the door, and I’ll ring Bryce for you.’
……..He did just that; sat by the door, hardly noticed the odd car passing, looked instead to the hills beyond the sound and the place, Havelock, which he’d visited with his father years before. ‘It’s all jacked up,’ said Bev cheerfully. ‘No sweat.’ His father had crushed a little finger in the mechanised wool press shortly before one of their fishing trips, and David remembered the tight bandage, white at first, but becoming grubby over the three days spent mainly in the boat.
……..Bryce drove a blue Toyota ute, and had pale, worn trousers pouched at the knees, and slender arms that were almost hairless. David helped him put the larger packages in the back, then waited in the cab while Bryce checked over final things with Bev. It was obvious that for her the rural delivery departure was a high point in a less than hectic day. A swelling MAINLAND was half in the doorway of David’s side of the Toyota, as she saw them off. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘it’ll be a really beaut day on the track. Just watch out for any visitors coming back from the centre. Some of those city people, Jesus, they’ve no idea of driving a secondary road.’
……..‘Some of them should be patients there,’ said Bryce drily.
……..‘Don’t get me started on that place.’ She was going to, though, the MAINLAND KIWI expanded as she took breath for it, but then she remembered David, and that he was off there to work, so she let out her breath harmlessly, waved her hand before her face and theirs to indicate the myriad accounts she could give of the Slaven Centre. Her farewell to David, a stranger of no consequence to her, was as full and genuine as that for Bryce, whom she saw most days of her life. It was the helpful, outgoing nature that he remembered; the striped pants, the careless hair, the track of a scalding tear, seemed incidental enough.
……..‘Good on you,’ said Bryce. He smiled as he drove along the short, flat road at the head of the sound before the Mahakipawa Hill. The mud left gleaming by the receding tide had slight green and purple visceral tints like fresh goose shit, and the few buildings of Havelock settled down, dwindling, in the sun. ‘Yeah, good on you,’ said Bryce again, though David had said nothing. The view of Bryce’s smile was a side view; the teeth so heavily filled that the enamel showed a shadow from within.
……..‘She seems a good sort.’
……..‘Old Bev? You betcha,’ said Bryce. ‘She used to be a real one for the leg-over, but three kids podded in six years simmered her down a bit. She’s all right. A trooper, is Bev.’
……..The ute growled during the pull up the Mahakipawa hill. Gorse, broom, bracken and taller pittosporum. There was flax close to the shore; some pongas and native trees in damper gullies. Whole slopes were in a flowering of gorse and broom, but no New Zealand confuses the two: the bumble bee yellow of the gorse and the butterfly yellow of broom.
……..Bryce had the easy manner of someone in familiar country. ‘This is your first time out to the Slaven Centre?’
……..‘Some family in there?’
……..‘No,’ David said. ‘No, I’m not visiting anyone. I hope there’s a job waiting for me. Nurse aiding, supervision, therapy – stuff like that.’
……..‘Good one. I hear they pay not too badly. Most qualified people aren’t too keen, because they’re not sure about – you know.’ Bryce was going to say about it being dicey because no one knew for sure how the thing spread, but he sidestepped that. ‘The isolation’s a bit of a bummer I’d say.’
……..‘Sure, for city guys maybe,’ said David. ‘I suppose the centre is left pretty much alone? Doesn’t have a lot of contacts outside?’
……..‘Pretty much. Well, there’s people come to visit patients, of course, but they’re usually in and out, or if they need to stay a while then the centre has motel-style blocks of its own.’
……..The road wound up the hill. Poor country most of it: the cuttings exposed the soft, flaky rock and yellow soils. Bryce stopped at occasional farm gates to do his thing – letters, deliveries, a new tyre at E.P. Rossiter’s. One or two of the gate boxes were as big as dog kennels.
……..‘Most of them are harmless, I suppose,’ David said.
……..‘The patients.’
……..‘Never given us much problem that I know of. They do things to each other, I hear, and half a dozen have drowned themselves for a fact. There seems to be something about the water when they’re desperate, the poor buggers. But you’ll get to know all about that.’
……..The sea to the left glittered enticingly in the unobstructed sun.
……..‘So the cops aren’t there much?’
……..‘Nah. There’s no need for any of that.’ Bryce crossed the median line and pulled up on the wrong side of the road, but next to the wooden box with just ‘Meek’ on it. There was a little rise and then a dip in the road ahead of them as they sat there. David tensed for the few second that it would have taken a vehicle to rise from the hollow, sweep over the crest and hit the ute head on. Yet he knew that Bryce must have been watching the road carefully long before they stopped, and didn’t give him the satisfaction of a query, or complaint.
……..Soon after, they came down from the hill and on to a small valley flat with a stream to the sea. Just a few willows and a fresh breeze. The little, open valley rose into the hills, partly cleared slopes with some green, irregular pasture, then gorse and broom, then the native bush holding out on the tops. A raw road led up to the Slaven Centre, boldly new and incongruous on the hillside.
……..Bryce nodded towards the buildings. ‘That’s her,’ he said. ‘Stuck there like bulls’ bollocks.’
……..At the turn-off, a timber slab mounted on two stone cairns bore the name of the centre carved deeply and painted white. SLAVEN CENTRE – nothing about Harlequin, nothing about the threat from Africa and the lure of the sea.
……..Bryce turned in and rattled up the unsealed drive to make his deliveries. ‘I come back past usually about three thirty.’ He burrowed in the ledge beneath the dash when then van was stopped and David had paid his five dollars, then wrote something on the back of a courier ticket. ‘My cellphone number,’ he said. ‘When you want to get away for a day or so, give me a call and I’ll be able to tell you how I’m going for time.’
……..‘Okay. You want a hand in with things?’
……..‘Nah. You get yourself sorted. I hope things work hunky-dory for you here.’ He was gone, with a plastic bag of letters and a string bag of bigger stuff.
……..David took his pack and put it on the grass by the car park. He looked over the tilt of the land to the sound, and across that to the steep country on the other side. He had a strong inclination to put the pack on and walk away into the landscape, but he’d tried that option several times before and it had never worked out.
……..The Slaven Centre had been built hurriedly and with economies of scale. There were bright, prefabricated panels, covered walkways, aluminium and glass annexes like greenhouses, a car park bulldozed into the pale clay of the hillside. Most of the buildings were close to the ground, yet lacking integration: a bright scatter in the natural colours of the hillside. They reminded David of school buildings, a fresh, brazen campus rather than a hospital. Maybe that was the impression intended: something to distract the mind from the real function of the centre, which was to treat a sickness not much older than the buildings themselves.
……..He wasn’t in a mood for pity, however, not for anybody else, no matter what their misfortune, and not for himself because he knew that the course which had brought him to Mahakipawa was the quite consistent consequence of his own mistakes.




© Owen Marshall, 1999, published in Harlequin Rex, Penguin.


'...we were there as faith-based writers, as believers in the mana of Oceania...' - David Eggleton

Read more