Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2023

Call Me Marlowe (2023), by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Like Philip Salom, Catherine de Saint Phalle writes novels that feature inner city Melbourne in all its eccentricity.  Her memoir Poum & Alexandre was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017, but I discovered her fiction with The Sea and Us (2019, see my review).  It brought the story of Harold who stumbled into a rich and almost satisfying life when he came to live above a fish-and-chip shop called ‘The Sea and Us’ in Brunswick.  ‘Almost’ satisfying, because Harold was in mourning for a failed relationship in Seoul where he had lived for 18 years and learned pottery.

Call Me Marlowe revisits The Sea and Us and brings us the next chapter in Harold’s life.  The identity issues that plagued him in The Sea and Us are sketched out more fully and once again a relationship failure sends him travelling in search of redemption, this time to Prague…

The first part of the story is peopled with familiar characters from the multicultural community of The Sea and Us. Harold’s heritage is Czech and his landlady Verity is Irish.  Their friend Ben is a Kiwi, and the manager of the pottery who is losing patience with Harold’s unsold pots is Syn, who’s Nordic. But new characters emerge in unexpected ways which are not always welcome.  Verity’s Ex, a convicted rapist and murderer, is dying of cancer and wants to renew contact; and Marylou, a sex-worker who had fled Seoul for Harold’s protection doesn’t share Verity’s openness to redemption. Feeling pressure to support Verity, she goes with Harold and Verity to visit Robert in hospital, and this sets a chain of events in motion. Her terrible nightmares return when this man’s presence disturbs the equilibrium of their small community, and those nightmares are the catalyst for acts of betrayal which fracture the long-standing friendship with Harold.

And he runs away again, this time with an impulsive flight to Prague.  There, by a series of not-very-convincing coincidences, he meets friends and relations who help him resolve his estrangement from his mother. It also helps him to come to terms with his obsession with stories he heard from the grandmother who brought him up after the family fled the Soviet regime. For Harold, being in Prague where history is embedded in the ‘stumbling stones’ that memorialise murdered Jews, the unexplained death of the hero Jan Masaryk is emblematic of a fundamental truth: sometimes, it just isn’t possible to know the truth.

Trauma, and failed attempts to redress it, is a thread that runs through this novel.  Harold’s misguided efforts to help a child whose mother has suddenly died in grotesque circumstances expose his impulsivity, his failure to listen to common sense from his American friend, and his lack of faith in welfare services which (as if Prague hasn’t moved on in the 30 years since its Soviet past) stems from his own distrust of past governments.  Harold is a deeply flawed character whose habit of over-thinking everything gets in the way of sorting himself out, and he seems to leave a wreckage of hurt and confusion behind him.

Call Me Marlowe is a more accomplished novel than  The Sea and Us, but also more demanding in its allusions.  There are many references to books, not all of which were familiar to me, and to completely unfamiliar events in Prague’s history which impact on the present.  The title itself is an allusion to characters in the ‘hard-boiled noir’ of Raymond Chandler, whose dialogue is mimicked by Harold and his friend Marylou*.  Harold a.k.a. Marlowe uses this mimicry to distance himself from his feelings, to enable a platonic relationship with her because her feelings for him are ambiguous. The question that remains unanswered at the end of the novel is whether there can be any resolution for this awkward relationship.

Will another novel resolve things?  We shall have to wait and see!

*The Offspring used to do this during his adolescent obsession with The Life of Brian. He and his friends spent many weekends watching it, and every conversation was peppered with quotations from the film.  It was rather clever, and constantly amusing.

Author: Catherine de Saint Phalle
Title: Call Me Marlowe
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2023
Cover design: Peter Lo
ISBN: 9780645565324, pbk., 304pp
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.


  1. I have yet to read her which is a shame but interestingly, quite by coincidence, one of my neighbours – last year – stayed in her air bnb place in Melbourne. She thought Catherine was lovely! Not that that says anything about her writing!


    • According to the blurb, she divides her time between Melbourne and Daylesford, so maybe that was her actual house?


      • Maybe it was. I don’t recollect that detail. But makes sense.


  2. In my day (and probably yours) it was the Goon Show. I’ve been meaning to read Poum & Alexandre for years. I’d better get myself a copy.


    • No, not in my day, I never even came across the Goon Show until I was in my forties. I can’t imagine my parents listening to it…
      Maybe in my adulthood we listened to the wrong ABC. If it was on 3AR we couldn’t get that in Seymour (so no classical music either) and it was the local version of 3LO with sport, parliament and stock prices and more sport— or some appalling country station. I learned to love silence in the house, and even now I only listen to the radio in the car.


  3. I had a copy of this sent to me (I somehow seem to have got on the Transit Lounge list without asking 🤷🏻‍♀️) but hadn’t realised it was a sequel of sorts. It sounds good but who knows when it will make it to the top of the TBR… I have so many reading projects going on!

    Also: my best friend at school and her older brother were obsessed with the Life of Brian and Monty Python in general and could quote huge chunks of dialogue verbatim. Half the time I had *no idea* what they were talking about!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, you can imagine that an adolescent male’s favourite line was ‘he’s not the messiah, he’s just a naughty boy!’
    I’ve been thinking about whether it’s necessary to read The Sea and Us, and I don’t think it is. You get an idea of it from my no-spoilers review of it, but I don’t think even that is necessary. Though it’s always hard to know when you *have* read it…
    BTW You’ll never guess what I’m reading… The Changeling by Robin Jenkins which I undertook to read promptly when you reviewed it…


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