Review: Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Pearly Gates is set in an unnamed, provincial South Island town and told from the perspective of Pat ‘Pearly’ Gates. The imagined town, for me, became a hybrid of Timaru and Oamaru, perhaps endearing the book to me even more because it became ‘local’ and I had more of an affinity to it.
Pearly is a Real Estate Agent and Mayor of the town but despite these occupations, under Owen Marshall’s pen, he isn’t an entirely repellent character. Well-mannered, arrogant and proud, Pearly is surrounded by a cast of colourful characters who antidote him, antagonise him and highlight the folly and foibles of his character. Pearly's relationships with each character enable him to scrutinise his own morality and identify complacency more often than not.
The minor charcters in Pearly Gates shine with Dickensian brilliance, with names like Snoz Gazzler or Gumbo, or succinct descriptions like "[Gary Fleak was] a whingeing, mean-spirited man with hairy ears, as if some miniature, hirsute creature crouched in their portals".
Naturally, surprising nods throughout the novel - Twizel gets a mention, so does the Lee Valley where I grew up – endear Pearly Gates to me even more. The familiarity and evocation of the South Island is at once so exact and comforting, especially as we isolate ourselves from everything we have taken for granted outside of our homes.
Perhaps that's an important element to love in this novel: the entertaining normality of pre-lockdown life that Marshall describes - dinner parties, corporate events, grabbing lunch at a café, bumping into old friends and avoiding others. We are in a liminial time, isolated and oscillating between the old normal and a new normal, whatever that will look like. We have time to reflect on our moral character, as Pearly does, while also seeking comfort and entertainment to bide the time.
Marshall’s descriptions of the countryside and practical and evocative, drawing a familiar picture for any regular country road driver: "driving into the rolling hills, with the mountains a higher cut-out on the horizon. The country road was narrow but sealed. When Pearly was young it had been shingled, dangerous heaps on the outer side of the corners, and occasional oncoming vehicles trailing a parachute of dust. For him the landscape had the comforting familiarity of an old coat. Scattered cabbage trees on the flanks of the brown hills, matagouri and briar in some of the steeper gullies, and here and there pale grey limestone outcrops worn smooth at their base where sheep congregated for shade.”
Pearly Gates might be seen by parochial urbanites as too provincial, but its provincialism is the strength and heart of Pearly Gates – after all, what would New Zealand be without its provinces?
Marshall’s descriptions of town, country and character throughout Pearly Gates are precise, succinct and charming. Despite no identifiable “plot”, for which the novel doesn’t suffer, Marshall has created a NZ community and a cast of characters at once so familiar and so entertaining that reading Pearly Gates was the exact remedy for Covid-19 isolation: funny, delight-filled, tremendously well written and evocative of something so familiar and yet out of our reach at the moment. Ultimately, as we, like Pearly reflect and grapple with our own moral quandaries, Pearly Gates is both a comfort and a delight to read.
Published by Penguin Random House NZ.
Available in The Twizel Bookshop for $38.