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Talking About O'Dwyer by C. K. Stead

Talking About O'Dwyer

by C. K. Stead

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Talking About O'Dwyer is perhaps unique, in that it is a coming-of-age novel – a bildungsroman – but with a sixty-year-old man as the central character. It is about coming to terms with regrets of a life lived but not lived as you wanted it. It follows the anxieties of Mike, a New Zealand-born teacher at Oxford whose marriage has fallen apart and who still pines for the love of his youth: Marica, an enchanting but pensive daughter of Croatian immigrants who left him, became a doctor and married someone else. A parallel storyline follows the mystery of the recently deceased O'Dwyer, Mike's friend, who all his life was plagued by guilt over the death of one of his men in combat in World War Two. Both stories are told by Mike to his patient friend, Winterstoke.

The lives of these people (and there are a surprisingly large number of characters, given the book's short length) are complicated; they are all good people but are entangled, confused and beaten down by life's twists and turns. The novel follows Mike as he (not always consciously) tries to come to terms with his own decisions and emotions. The two main hurdles for this, for him and for the other characters, are identity and memory.

The overall tone of Talking About O'Dwyer is melancholy and perhaps a little bittersweet. The major strength of the novel is that author C. K. Stead's characters cannot be pigeon-holed; whilst they may on occasion behave world-weary, or say something jaded or cynical, these words cannot be used to define them. The same goes for when they act immaturely, spitefully, self-centredly, kind-heartedly, friendly, hopeful or any other word you might cherry-pick from a thesaurus to describe the myriad emotions humans go through. Stead's resolutions to his characters' conflicts are all about accepting life as it is, not as you wish it would be. This acceptance is reached through a mix of wry observation ("What sort of a life is it if you have nothing to regret?" (pg. 197)), hard-bitten stoicism ("[they] had been part of a bigger story which, when it went by the name of History, would attribute cause and perhaps apportion blame, but which to the participants was simply memory, or What Happened..." (pg. 224)) or by looking to the future, even in old age ("There was no going back. But sometimes there was such a thing as going forward." (pg. 189); "Take your time, brother. We're old men, and we have the summer before us." (pg. 14)).

This will be a thought-provoking novel for anyone given to introspection, or who struggles with the memory of past regrets and past mistakes (isn't that everyone?). The sometimes overtly philosophical bent of Talking About O'Dwyer thankfully never becomes didactic, and whilst it probably would become boring if it were a longer novel, Stead's brevity and his liberal splashes of humour make it a compelling and thoroughly worthwhile read. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Apr 12, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140288392, Paperback)

What really happened to a soldier in the infamous Maori battalion, killed in the battle for Crete during World War II? And why did the soldier’s family place a curse on O’Dwyer, the officer who was his commander at the time he died? Half a century later two Oxford dons, Newall and Winterstoke, attend the funeral of their colleague O’Dwyer, an expatriate New Zealander. After the ceremony, Newall reveals to Winterstoke the story of the curse placed on O’Dwyer during the war and, in the days that follow, he continues the tales of O’Dwyer and his ‘cursed’ life. Slowly the stories of Newall, another New Zealander in self-enforced exile, and of Winterstoke are also revealed in Stead’s complex and subtle narrative which shifts across time and space from New Zealand to Oxford to Croatia and to Crete at the time of the allied defeat there.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:43 -0400)

What really happened to a soldier in the Maori battalion killed in the battle for Crete during World War Two? And why did the soldier's family place a curse on O'Dwyer, the officer in command when he died?

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