A long conversation about a recently deceased colleague and fellow New Zealander becomes a beautifully rendered but curiously unmoving tale of tragic missteps and regrets.
Oxford don Michael Newall, the middle-aged protagonist, relates the story to aging don Bertie Winterstoke after the two have attended the funeral of their colleague Donovan’s O’Dwyer. And the telling of the story will continue in many further encounters over lunches, suppers, and during long afternoons drinking beer in the Oxford countryside. Newall is a philosopher and atheist whose life has been shaped by the teachings of Wittgenstein; his wife Gillian has left him, and he no longer has any zest for teaching. He recalls growing up in New Zealand next to the Selenich family, Croatian immigrants who had started a vineyard near Auckland. Granddaughter Marica was his first love, and grandson Frano was his best friend. Frano’s mother Ljuba had married a Maori man, who was killed in battle on Crete, and it was while visiting Frano’s Maori family as a boy that Newall had seen O’Dwyer cursed. As he moves back and forth from New Zealand to Oxford and Croatia, where he visits the now-elderly Ljuba, Newall describes his doomed love affair with Marica, Frano’s fatal motorbike accident, and his own estrangement from his wife. But O’Dwyer’s story is at the heart of these reminiscences, and Newel leisurely details how O’Dwyer, the officer commanding a Maori regiment, led his men against the advancing Germans and then at the height of battle made the fatal mistake that would exile him to England and a lifetime of guilt. The tale told, Newall is finally able to make restitution for O’Dwyer’s tragic error and move on from his own past.
A quiet—perhaps too quiet—agreeably literate novel that vividly evokes time and place.