Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2019

Pearly Gates (2019), by Owen Marshall

Owen Marshall (b. 1941) is a well-known author in New Zealand, with a very substantial body of work and some impressive accolades from the KiwiLit community, not to mention mentions in three shortlists noted on this blog — but it was not until I came across John McCrystal’s review of his new novel Pearly Gates in the New Zealand Review of Books (about which I have enthused before, see here) that I got round to chasing up one of his titles.  (Which just shows you the value of an enticing review, eh?)

It’s a surprisingly interesting book, given the quotidian nature of its characterisation and plot.  It’s very everyday, just the tale of an ordinary man in small town New Zealand and his late life crisis of conscience, but I couldn’t put it down.  It’s a remarkable achievement to make a reader care about the ethical fate of a man whose success in life has made him complacent and a little too proud of his somewhat mundane achievements.

Aged 64, Pat ‘Pearly’ Gates is a real estate agent, and in his second term as mayor of the small provincial town he lives in.  He is comfortably married to Helen, and they have two adult children regrettably living far away but not estranged either.  Pearly is a recognisable face around town, and admired for his long ago feats playing rugby for Otago although injury forced him out before he could achieve his ambition to play for the All Blacks. He’s a good ‘people person’, comfortable with listening to the inevitable complaints from constituents, and with a good team around him at the council, reasonably responsive to reasonable requests.  He’s mildly obsessive about appearances, becoming unduly irritated by a scratch on his car and passing over a best-qualified job applicant because his shoes were dirty, but not realising that he’s not exactly a smart dresser himself until late in the day when out-of-towners more successful than he, return for a school reunion.

But he is a bit smug:

Pearly reviewed his decision to stand for a third term.  He enjoyed being mayor, although he was now fully aware of the tedious nature of many of the responsibilities and functions. And his satisfaction in the role wasn’t just an expression of his sense of achievement, of entitlement.  Pearly had real affection and concern for his home region.  Indeed for the country as a whole.  He liked to see decent intentions and decent people succeed, as he had himself, and he rarely doubted his own judgement.  Pearly was his own role model. (p.10)

So it comes as a surprise when this basically decent if complacent man stumbles across political advantage and slyly uses it for his own benefit.  Actually, it’s more than a surprise, it’s quite shocking.  No one know about Pearly’s role in it, not even his victim, but it preys on his mind.  Along with some other stupid out-of-character things he’s done, such as hugging an attractive divorcee when a sale goes through and she rapidly rounds on him as one of a number of men ‘hitting on’ her now that she is on her own.  Such as feeling mildly envious of his brother who took up the failing family farm and made a success of it, and now has a son who wants to carry on the family business.  He regrets that too many of his friends have been neglected, especially now when mortality seems so much closer than before.  And there are small signs that not all is well with his body: the reader notes these cumulative signs but he ignores them (and the impulse to have a long overdue checkup).

The novel builds up slowly to the moment of crisis.  Pearly is, of course, on the organising committee of the 125th reunion of the school, and it’s his role to pick up the school’s most preeminent Old Boy and ferry him around.  He also makes the welcoming speech, only to find himself appearing provincial and a little too self-absorbed by comparison with the concluding speech of Sir Andrew Nisse and his global, future-orientated perspective.  Wrong-footed when he’s not the most important person around, Pearly gives in to an impulse: he encourages a none-too-bright and mildly-tipsy friend to demonstrate his loyalty in a dare that goes horribly wrong.

And his conscience will no longer be silenced.

If you are a subscriber to the NZ Review of Books, you can see John McCrystal’s review here.  Rebekah Fraser also reviewed it at NZ Booklovers (and vouches for the authenticity of Marshall’s portrait of small town NZ).

Author: Owen Marshall
Title: Pearly Gates
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand), 2019, 281 pages
ISBN: 9780143773153
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond (freight from NZ to Australia is free) : Pearly Gates


  1. I’ve never heard of this writer and I don’t think I’ve ever read a Kiwi book, now that I think about it.


    • Oh my, no Kiwi author ever?
      Could I suggest one of the stories of NZ’s most famous author Katherine Mansfield, ‘In a German Pension?’ This is a short story for people like me who aren’t keen on short stories:)


  2. I love a really well developed character in a book and Pearly sounds like he is quite the character! 🐧🤠


    • Indeed, I kept thinking about our local real-estate agent when I was reading this. He’s actually a nice man, and the book made me see that real estate agents (who we tend to think of as being only interested in commission) have an important role to play in helping us to find our dream home, which is actually the most important purchase most of us ever make, and makes such a big difference to whether we are happy or not. They ask us what we want and then they go and find it for us. (You can see this happening in the ABC program Escape from the City, and you can also see that they often get it wrong because they are *not* real estate agents). Although Owen Marshall punctures his character’s self-importance, there is a tenderness in the portrayal as well.
      I wish I could go back and thank the agent who found our house for us, to thank him again and tell him that I’ve been very happy here for 40+ years.


      • I know what you mean. As long as I have great light , trees and wildlife around me I am happy.


        • Well, that is getting to be harder than it used to be in suburban Melbourne. More and more of the houses in our street are being pulled down for 2 storey-townhouses, and since the one next door has been bought by an investor, it’s only a matter of time before that happens next door.
          So although I do not fancy living in a country town, it may yet come to that if we are hemmed in by concrete on all sides.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds intriguing, Lisa. Am always interested in seemingly good people doing bad things…


  4. I think I prefer people thinking about stuff to stories about people doing stuff. In my experience men who ‘almost played for the All-Blacks’, or in Australia, made it to AFL/VFL football, are mostly smugly self-confident.


    • That’s a bit hard. I don’t care about sport at all as you know, and I wish people would invest the same money and effort into doing worthwhile things of lasting importance, but I still feel for people who put their heart and soul into some sport only to find that the body lets them down with an injury.
      And far from feeling self-confident, my experience with people like that is that instead of rejoicing in whatever achievements they have, they feel they are has-beens, because they didn’t quite get to where they wanted to be.


  5. I was married to a professional soccer player and he was very poor husband and father. And the rapid shift in our communities with old properties being demolished to suit the almighty dollar is very sad. Sport is now another victim of the corporatised mania unfortunately.


    • I used to see poor behaviour from some of our young players at school – it went to their heads and they became quite arrogant. (Mind you, the role models they see on TV it’s not wonder, that Nick K is a national embarrassment.)


  6. […] Pearly Gates, by Owen Marshall […]


  7. […] Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review […]


  8. […] Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review […]


  9. […] Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review […]


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