Monthly Archives: January 2013

Griffith Review 38, Annual Fiction Edition, the Novella Project: Book Review

My thanks again to Lisa Hill for providing me with some fabulous fodder for these reviews for  ANZ LitLovers.

Griffith Review’s Annual Fiction Edition The Novella Project is a treasure box filled with six novellas – a couple of them just a smidge over what might be called substantial short stories – and a small collection of pictures entitled ‘Here comes the sun: a loose association of artists (Tai Snaith’s ‘Assorted Organic Thugs 2012’ a delightful standout for me).

Cover Image is 'The Cruel Sea' by Tai Snaith

Cover Image is    ‘The Cruel Sea’ by Tai Snaith

Doors slide silently throughout Mary-Rose MacColl’s ‘The Water of Life’ revealing snapshots of lives affected by a pedestrian and a bus and a wrong-place-wrong-time moment.  One of the key players likes “the routes that start ordinary and end up somewhere unexpected by going a strange way” (15), metaphorically broadcasting the intentions of the author, perhaps:  certainly sending a signal to the reader.  MacColl gives us an on-the-ground view of a Brisbane she is obviously familiar with. The 385 bus that “starts in the city, goes over to South Brisbane as if it’s tricking…” (15), balloons over the waking city, “Remax and Sirromet and another one she can’t read” (16) and “smokestacks puffing away over the four exes on Milton Brewery” (25).  It’s an entertaining thought-provoking time-warp tale.

Lyndel Caffrey unwraps the love story of Bird and Glad in ‘Glad’ with a constant eye on the detail of a 1920s Melbourne: of gold dust in the printery; of Kiwi shoe polish and the Sherwood Knitting and Spinning  Mills; of the Bulletin and Henry Lawson and trips to Brighton Beach; the boot lasts and beeswax of a cobbler’s corner.  Caffrey captures perfectly the depth and ease and awkwardness, joy and sadness of youthful innocent love.

Here’s Glad and Bird falling in love at Brighton Beach:

My Glad, that’s who you are.
He squashed her sticky salty hands together in his and found her salty lips against his mouth and held on until her head pulled back and she took a great breath of cold air.
If anyone asks you your name, you tell them you’re Bird’s Glad, that’s who you are, he said.
(53)

And here Bird and his sister race to the Sherwood Mills:

They rocketed through the back streets of Brunswick and Coburg, him light-headed as his feet turned the pedals, Fynn up on the handlebars, twisting her head back and filling him in. (47)

Katerina Cosgrove’s ‘Intimate Distance’ jumps from Efes to Athens and leaps forward to a 2017 Sydney and back again.  Over the distance of kilometres and years, intimacy unfolds in many ways, such as in its description of “the marine scent of semen growing cold on the sheets” (77) and the quiet softness of a dawn that “pricks the shutters with needles of light” (84).  The intimacy between the lovers Zoi and Mara is pierced by the intrusion of Zoi’s brother Dimitri.  There is the ultimate intimacy of pregnancy; the strength of the connection between a woman and her body, a child and its mother, the baby’s link to an unknown world.  And there’s a changed (and charged) intimacy between lovers when paternity hovers.  But where is the line between telling and holding back?  At what point does the telling revoke the intimacy?

His mouth locks onto my nipple, a drop of colostrum oozes into his body like light, the same light.  Thin blood, rose-coloured, fading or brightening into white.  Trickling out of brown nipples like rain. (137)

Still intimate as it is typed onto a page no doubt, but perhaps lost by the time it is read?

I floundered within the pages of ‘A Minor loss of Fidelity’ and was not able to find my place as a reader.  It was as though Christine Kearney wrote in a bubble and I couldn’t force my way in to unravel the nuances.  Did the author have something to say about motherhood?  Or was I missing something in the UN connection? Timor? Family? Politics? Poverty? The Law? It was never quite clear for me.

With apologies to my sisters of the pen, I’ve got to say that the most memorable pieces were written by the two men represented in the collection.

If I struggled to find a convincing voice in Christine Kearney’s story, no such issue arose with ‘River Street’.  Jim Hearn sets the scene and tone in the opening paragraph (“I pump my fist and work a sullen, pockmarked vein toward courage” (235)) and soon follows up with a solid, convincing voice that never wavers (“I’m not sure if innocence exists but if it does it belongs to a time before you realise that the world is just one long river of pus”(236)).

The horror of the life of a junkie is expanded by the apparent normalcy of securing a job in order to fund the vice.  Hearn’s narrator doesn’t ask us for pity, doesn’t need us to understand his morality.  I found a certain heroic streak in the way Jimmy handles his addiction; his intelligent understanding of his limits, his pragmatic approach to attending to his needs, his precise calculation of time-frames necessary to function as a human being.

Two weeks have passed since I read ‘River Street’ (I read it three times, trying to grasp how the writer made such a sympathetic character out of a foul-mouthed junkie) and Jimmy’s voice still haunts me.  I search for his likeness in restaurants (could that guy flambéing in the kitchen be sweating through an aching desire for drugs?), I look for him amongst the bustle of pedestrians (is that the walk of an addict looking for his next fix?).  When a stranger speaks pleasantly to me at the bus stop, could a voice be screaming inside him ‘I could be dead in half an hour’?  Might he be waging a silent war with his legs which seem to have a craving all of their own? “I picture smashing them into the side of a bus while riding a motorbike. The daydream is pure pleasure.” (276).

Hearn is just pipped at the post by Ed Wright for my favourite piece: ‘An End to Hope’. Its size (53 pages) and weight of subject matter (duty and suicide) are perfectly suited to the novella. It is executed within the form to perfection.  From the opening line, Wright urges you on with a sense of immediacy:

A moment’s hesitation was all it took. She stood there trembling on the tree.  Noose around her neck. Waiting for the final count that would take her to oblivion. (149)

The narrator – a duty-bound Japanese daughter – side-steps acceptable behaviour to befriend an enemy soldier and to eventually take him as her lover, in the shadow of her dead soldier sweetheart Yukio.

The intimacy shared between the lovers for whom language is not the only barrier is at once familiar and alien, all the more so by the denial of a name for the soldier.  Despite their intimacy, the girl’s secret soldier-lover remains – in her mind – ‘the enemy’: “I rested my head in the enemy’s lap and his stuff continued to trickle out of me…” (170).  He is always ‘the enemy’ in the deepest private part of his lover’s soul, even as she imagines him ageing: “His chiselled jaw would have grown more chins.  His firm belly would have gone soft.  The skin on his chest would have sagged.  His hair would be thick and grey.” (183)

This imagined ageing is beautifully realised and continues as the narrator describes her future self: “an obachan wobbling through the village with her back perpendicular to her legs as if time had turned the entire world into mountain.” (182)

This 38th Edition of Griffith Review is perfect for lovers of short fiction.  It’s also a great way to ‘taste-test’ these authors if you’ve not read their work before.  I’ll be checking out Ed Wright’s first full-length collection of poetry, When sky becomes the space inside your head (Puncher and Wattman) and I’m looking forward to reading Jim Hearn’s High Season published by Allen and Unwin in 2012.

BOOK DETAIL:
Schultz, Julianne, Ed. The Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project, Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing. Sth Brisbane/Melbourne, Summer 2012.
ISBN: 9-781921-922602

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An Unknown Sky and Other Stories by Susan Midalia: Book Review

Thanks to ANZ LitLovers for this fabulous read.  My review is cross-posted there.

An Unknown Sky is Susan Midalia’s second collection of short stories (her first was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards) and it is clear from the outset that the reader is in sure hands.

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The publicity blurb suggests that all the characters are “‘travellers’ in search of connection and belonging” but my readings elicited a somewhat different vibe centred on relationships and inner causality.

Certainly ‘Underground’ is one of the finest sketches of an Australian abroad that I’ve come across. Petra is a loner who overcomes her claustrophobic fears to tackle the black marble steps down to Lenin’s Tomb, partly to humour her beloved nephew and to elevate her stature in his eyes. 

Travelling also features in the title story. Tom leaves home to spread his wings overseas but it is his mother’s thoughts and actions in his absence that show him gone.  Even before he leaves, his mother understands the going:

How I’d edged through the doorway and asked if he was ready, and he’d turned to me with a shadow on his face.  How he’d shrugged when I’d asked him what was wrong. Nothing that a year in the Andes won’t cure, he’d said, and returned to his packing, leaving both of us stranded, fumbling our way through those last days at home.  A hapless, clumsy pair. (26)

Midalia captures the aching fear of a child suddenly beyond reach.  After a nightmare about a plane with its “flimsy wings and a ripple of flames and then a violent bust of orange filling up the sky” (30), followed by a day of trying “not to picture the thin slice of metal on which my son placed all his weight” (30), the familiar sound of an incoming email sounds like “a tiny fingernail, a baby’s fingernail, struck against a glass’ (30).

Every character is finely drawn, motives and ideals unveiled with subtlety.

‘Sacred’ captures the essence of a teenage boy’s angst. When Carlo’s rage over a schoolroom taunt is so fierce that he “sat up straight and his hand flew out and he punched and punched like mad, like a boxer, like a big machine, feeling good, feeling right” (42), we can’t help but recall an earlier scene when Carlo in his new suit and tie arrived at his grandmother’s party: his Nonna “cried when she saw him in his new jacket and wrapped him up in her floppy arms and called him tesorino, little treasure (40).

Masterful word choices keep the prose tight yet poetic throughout the collection. Crows have a “shiny robustness” (45), “oversized westerners” in Dubai are “waddling lords of the earth in their logo-ed shirts” (1),  a cellist “plays like she has bruises inside her” (81) and middle-aged society women have “bright blonde hair cut into dangerous spikes” (132) and “cheekbones like knives” (142).

‘Hypnogogia’ (an odd title; hypnagogia is the usual spelling I believe) is a poignant study of mental fragility; of the reality of thought and the effect of warped reality on loved ones.  Belle’s lifelong friend is stoic and loyal in the face of her despair.  “As I watched her bent head, her slumped shoulders, I saw she had become the shape of alone” (148) and when he arrives at Belle’s house to find she has almost tipped over the edge, his despair is clear as he looks at the policeman’s pen hovering over a blank page:

I…felt my blood sighing, a red, silent river of mourning.  I could have told him about a crazy, loveable kid, a besotted wife, and then a madly skidding car on a wet winter’s day.  A grieving widow; and years later, an abandoned wife.  I could have said I’d been waiting, waiting for a lifetime…” (152)

Midalia’s flashes of wit are delightful, particularly in her ability to sketch absurdity in the mundane. From ‘Crows’:

Stella’s morning walk was often entertaining.  She saw the muscle-bound runner decked out for a trip to the moon: earphones, water bottle, sweat bands, peaked cap, pedometer, joggers with flashing lights.  Panting, Coming through, coming through, to unsuspecting strollers. (45)

‘The Workshop Facilitator Said’ is laugh out loud funny, particularly for writers.   When the workshop facilitator says that a story can be based entirely on what happens inside a character’s head, a fellow aspiring writer smiles but the narrator “couldn’t tell what he was thinking” (176).  Later, she decides to test the theory that writers should “imply, infer, nudge”, on her husband. “I smell something strange in the room, I said, but he didn’t take the hint.” (176)  Then, after a session at the workshop on point of view: “That night, after dinner, I told my husband that she smelled something strange in the room, and he gave me one of his looks.” (178).

An Unknown Sky is an accessible collection, just perfect for short bursts, which is how many of us like our fiction served these days.

BOOK DETAIL:
Midalia, Susan. An Unknown Sky and other stories, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-74258-427-0

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Sunscreen and Lipstick: Book Review

I must say at the outset that I’m not fond of this idea of putting excerpts from novels and longer works into a collection.  Short stories and novellas are self-contained pieces of writing that, whilst they may leave much unsaid, don’t leave you with the notion that the author didn’t finish what he or she set out to do.

Most of the works in Sunscreen and Lipstick are excerpts from novels or memoir and, as such, are not written to stand alone.  Without the full story, some extracts failed to interest me entirely.  Others were wonderfully enticing which, unfortunately, leaves me with only one option.  If I want the full story, then I need to purchase another book.  It may not be the intention of the publishers, but it could be construed as straight-out commercialism.  Instead, I’ll adopt the notion that in combining works of emerging writers with some of Australia’s best known authors, the former get a leg-up in being read and critiqued and it gives writers the opportunity to sample the various authors.

Deborah Robertson’s ‘Living Arrangements’ is a beautiful insight into the life of a lonely woman – Roxie – whose promiscuity is yet another wall, even as her sexuality is used as a means to an end.

Roxie gets the visit she has been dreading from a Social Security official checking on living arrangements (Roxie, in a fit of confusion over the form that seemed designed to catch her out, had written “I’m a Lesbian” (93)):

Hers was a look I had been running from all my life: sensible shoes, sensible skirt, sensible blouse. […] I guessed we were about the same age but I hoped my face wasn’t as dragged by time and disappointment (101)

Roxie’s dry pragmatic voice comes through loud and clear.  Here’s her succinct impression of the social security office:

There was a kid screaming, an old guy coughing up his guts, a woman clutching her briefcase as if it held all her dignity: the usual. (89)

In ‘Maisie Goes to India’, Joan London showcases her award-winning style with descriptive passages such as the flock of birds that “rose, shrieking, while their wings flapped liked aprons in dismay” (156) and clouds that “fill the sky with domes and turrets” (170)

The blurb touts that “this book is all about women” but I think that is an interpretation too narrow.   T.A.G. Hungerford’s ‘The Fisher Hat’ for example, says something about a boy’s relationship with his mother but the story is really about a boy growing up, not about the mother.

‘Gnowangerup Doctors’ – a written record of Kim  Scott’s interview with Hazel Brown – is at once soft and harsh.  Be prepared, if you are a parent, to feel your solar plexus pierced in four powerful pages.

If you fancy a bit of a writerly Tapas, then this book might be what you are looking for.  Just be prepared to put your hand in your pocket when you’ve finished tasting and realise what you really wanted was a big plate of paella.

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BOOK DETAIL:
Sunscreen and Lipstick, compilation with introduction by Liz Byrski. Fremantle Press, Fremantle, WA., 2012.
ISBN: 9-781922-089113

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for the opportunity to read and review Sunscreen and Lipstick.  This review is cross posted there.

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