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.
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.
Midalia, Susan. An Unknown Sky and other stories, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.