Talking About O'Dwyer

C.K. Stead

Harvill Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
During the Second World War, Donovan O'Dwyer was a pakeha — white New Zealander — officer in the Maori battalion of the New Zealand Division. In the fighting around Maleme airport in the Battle of Crete, one of his men, Joe Panapa, died in circumstances which resulted in his family subsequently putting a makutu curse on O'Dwyer. And when O'Dwyer himself dies, more than fifty years later, his fellow Oxford don and New Zealander Mike Newall is the only one who knows the full story — which he recounts to his friend Winterstoke over a series of pub lunches.

The title notwithstanding, Newall has little to say about O'Dwyer: he tells Joe Panapa's story, which he has reconstructed from letters and a diary, but mostly he talks about his own life (and all of this Stead puts into the third person). As a child Newall's best friend was Joe Panapa's son, Panapa having married into the Croatian family next door. During the Vietnam war, Newall — a philosopher, an expert on Wittgenstein — had an academic posting in the United States, and his account of that is background to his marriage and recent divorce. And coming to terms with his divorce and tracing Joe Panapa's story has taken Newall to Croatia (in the process of separating from Yugoslavia) and back to New Zealand, to find new lovers and meet up with old ones.

Talking About O'Dwyer moves backwards and forwards between these strands, intertwining past and present, and spanning geographically and culturally disparate worlds: New Zealand in the 40s and 50s, Crete during the Second World War, the United States in the 60s, and Oxford, Croatia, and New Zealand in the present. Despite this, there's never any trouble following events and it all hangs together as a story — it doesn't have the thrust of a full-blooded thriller or mystery, but the uncertainty about the manner of Joe Panapa's death is nicely spun out and there's continuous tension from the working out of personal relationships. Stead offers fine evocations of age, childhood and memories, insights into relationships and their failures, and brief but powerful vignettes of war. The conclusion is perhaps a little contrived, but not unsatisfying; and the overall result is an engaging and rewarding novel.

July 2003

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Related reviews:
- C.K. Stead - The Death of the Body
- C.K. Stead - The Secret History of Modernism
- more Australian + New Zealand literature
- more fiction
- more war fiction
- books published by Harvill Press
%T Talking About O'Dwyer
%A Stead, C.K.
%I Harvill Press
%D 2000
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860468217
%P 243pp