Jennifer Mills does sadness well. In The Rest is Weight, she sketches moments of deep poignancy that can draw a bow across your heart strings. Your breath catches, your throat constricts and a hardness forms in your solar plexus that begs for release.
‘A selfish Prayer’ presents a narrator’s raw thoughts as she cares for her sister, at the same time remembering a childhood both enhanced and encumbered by her sister’s mental illness.
Despite having read ‘Look Down with Me’ before (The Best Australian Stories 2011, Black Inc.), I still found its subject matter difficult and I was only a little less shocked by the realisation that the denouement was upon me before I had sufficient time to prepare myself.
The opposite of peace is a heartbreaking tale of slow death and its impact on loved ones. A son opens his fathers safe – nothing more than a padlocked toolbox – to find a Will and “an empty space [his] father has carved away from his wife’s hoardings”.
But Mills is far from one-dimensional and this collection runs the emotional gamut. I have a few favourites, for quite different reasons. Here’s my imaginary award ceremony.
The Statue for the best Aussie tale goes to…
The Capital of Missing Persons
“It used to be known as the murder capital of Australia, but these days Adelaide is the capital of missing persons.” (52) ‘The Capital of Missing Persons’ is such a quintessentially Aussie tale (my favourite kind), with people travelling half way across the country because “It’s Christmas. It’s when we make up the distance.” (53) Anyone who has driven from Perth to Adelaide as the narrator does in search of her sister, will recognise the mad German cyclist crossing the Nullarbor “stoned on the distance” and will understand the sense of reverence the bush can invoke. ‘The Capital of Missing Persons’ also contains one of my favourite sentences: “Weatherboard buildings, identically mistreated, leer like beaten faces from these streets.” (57)
For the story that best showcases a sense of humour, the gong goes to…
The Lap (but the joke in ‘A Selfish Prayer’ gets a gold star)
‘The Lap’ is another road trip tale. Lucy meets a man travelling the retirement dream with his wife’s ashes in a caravan, his wife having inconveniently “died ahead of schedule”. Then, a laconic pharmaceutical salesman who’s patter momentarily crispens his speech. “His voice has altered: the consonants have straightened their clothes, the vowels got up off the floor. But they don’t seem to have the will to stay presentable, and he drops back into his untidy ocker” (90).
And the joke in ‘A Selfish Prayer’? I’m not sharing, except to say it features a dinosaur and a dog.
The Award for Originality goes hands down to…
The Taxi Driver, the title of which stands as a three word proxy to open each paragraph. It is just so damned clever.
And, finally, I’d present a big gold statue for craftsmanship to …
‘The Wind and other Children’.
Brevity. Phrasing. Word choice. Punctuation. Sentence structure. It presses all the buttons.
An opening that grabs your attention: “Bell knows three songs. They are all about autumn.”
A different way of telling: “Bell had a grandmother until recently.”
Perfect poetic rhythm: “With a tiny tremor, half-thrill half-terror, Bell becomes aware of the absence of her parents.”
Arresting imagery: “It stares down at her with yellow eyes sunk into a baggy elephant face. Bell smiles gently at the snorkelling elephant, and it looks pacified.”
Mills is quoted as saying that the best short stories “leave their essences unspoken”. She is definitely a writer who knows her craft and, in leaving so much unspoken, she gives the reader much.
Mills, Jennifer, The Rest is Weight: stories. University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, Australia.
ISBN 9 780702 24902