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The Larnachs by Owen Marshall

(Vintage, $39.99)

“This is not a biography and not a history. It is a novel: the imaginative interpretation of a situation experienced by real people,” writes owen Marshall.

By the time I reached the end of The Larnachs, I felt as if I’d been watching a bittersweet costume drama. I know Larnach Castle well and could perfectly picture the late 19th century life owen describes.

I’ve visited the home – known to William Larnach and his family as The Camp – many times, watching as the current owners have painstakingly restored it from a sad, broken wreck in the 1970s to a once-again stately and elegant pile today.

And I know my next visit will be more meaningful, evoking a vivid memory of The Larnachs’ cleverly drawn characters: smart, artistic, quick-witted Constance De Bathe Brandon (Conny) – the third wife of ageing and irritable William Larnach – and Dougie, his handsome and impetuous younger son.

Novel or not, all three come convincingly alive in the pages of The Larnachs, moving between a comfortable existence on the sometimes bleak otago Peninsula, overnight stays in nearby Dunedin – where they are entertained by well-known names such as Hocken and Cargill – and periods spent living a gracious and cultured life in Wellington, where William was a member of parliament.

oost of all though, I will imagine the delicious but forbidden love between Conny and her stepson Dougie. They’re friends, unable to resist becoming lovers in a hopeless scenario where the only possible outcome is pain and grief.

In alternating chapters, each takes a turn at describing the changing relationship, the moments of stolen passion when William Larnach is in residence, and happy, romantic days and nights when he isn’t.

owen’s style is gentle. There are no huge moments of drama, just a quiet sense of inevitability. While many readers will be able to guess the final outcome, that doesn’t make this novel any less compelling.

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