Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Harlequin Rex

Harlequin Rex

I've just read this stunning novel by Owen Marshall. It's his second; reviews of his first novel, A Many Coated Man, were not favourable. Landfall's reviewer claimed he was better to stick to short stories: "less is more", said reviewer Andrew Mason. However he wrote Harlequin Rex anyway, and it won the Montana Deutz Medal.

It's the story of a plague of psychiatric illness, nicknamed Harlequin, which causes the higher mental functions to shut down; this leaves only the "old brain" functions, the basic atavistic urges, running suddenly free. Sufferers in the grip of an "episode" hear and smell acutely, and become wildly excited; their mania may be sexual, or destructive, or playful, or murderous. Episodes become progressively more severe; in almost all cases, collapse and death follow.

Harlequin is spreading rapidly in New Zealand, and sanatoria are set up in isolated places to house sufferers until either a cure is found, or they die. Neither the cause of the illness nor its means of transmission are known. Adults of all ages and backgrounds find themselves committed to institutions from which few will ever leave. Marshall's story is set in one such sanatorium, the Slaven Centre, in the Marlborough Sounds. His central character is David, an ex-convict who has reasons for laying low, and who takes a job as an aide. Himself healthy, he becomes a part of this closed and doomed community, sharing the banal tragedy and the constant petty humiliations of institutional sickness.

Marshall describes his style as "impressionist"; His narrative is a chain of sense experiences and passionate emotions, linked by reflections on fate, mortality, personality and humanity. The style reflects the conflict of the animalistic brain, knowing only the moment and its desires, and the higher mind, aware of the passage of time and lost opportunities.

You can read more about Owen Marshall on his Book Council page. Clicking on the picture or heading above takes you to Fishpond.

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