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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