KNITTING and other Stories (Ed. Richard Rossiter): Book Review

There was one little book that packed a powerful punch for me last year.  It was the compact, concise, compelling collection of short stories Things that are Found in Trees (my review).  The stories were selected from entries to the inaugural Margaret River Writing Competition.  I loved the book and I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Margaret River Press ever since so I was delighted to be asked to review the anthology resulting from this year’s competition.

Knitting and other Stories is a larger collection (24 stories) presented in conventional paperback form with a great knit-look cover (designed by Susan Miller).

Knitting

Barry Divola’s winning entry ‘Knitting’ is a brilliant stand-out story.  He nails his characters, from the perfect depictions of a bogan neighbour (who is basically a language-challenged, ugg boot wearing mother of a scowling five year old in a Hello Kitty T-shirt), to an aside on gallery openings:

The cheap wine, the cheap opinions, the cheap people.  And the horror of someone coming up to you as you’re looking at a picture and asking ‘So what do you think?’ (21)

‘Knitting’ is beautifully structured with a mystery posed early by way of ‘seven years of silence, no reconciliation’ (23) between mother and daughter:  the same mother and daughter who had once silently knitted together, their needles forming a ‘soft click-clack like a morse code from one to the other.’ (22)  The narrator’s recollection of the man ‘who called himself Blaze (when his name was Craig)’ (23) is hysterically funny.

Sally Naylor-Hampson won second prize for ‘Laps’, a story of a secretive sexual awakening: ‘I could think of nothing but naked breast against steering wheel.  Bare back to dashboard.  Heaving thighs on seat.’ (156-157).

‘I Shine, Not Burn’ (Vahri McKenzie) won the South West Writer Prize with an introverted look at life and death and memories.  Here’s the narrator reminiscing after her grandmother’s death: ‘She made the best of a bad lot and stoically refused to name the bad lot for what it was.’ (101)

Kristen Levitzke was Highly Commended in the Open Category for her haunting depiction of postnatal depression in ‘Solomon’s Baby’ and I think this is my favourite from the collection for the emotion it sucks from the reader and the questions it leaves.

I was honest, I didn’t lie.  ‘I did it.  It was my fault.’ And I said it over and over, ‘My fault. My fault…my fault…’ I know I alternated the intonation like a song, but it was all that I said, one confession strung like a pearl to the next. (47)

Not easily forgotten.

Jacqueline Wright shows finely-honed word skills in ‘My Mother and the Robber’. A city apartment is described thus: ‘It was Fort Knox material soaring fifteen stories into the belly of a midsummer Perth Sky’ (68).  Ultimately though, the story left me slightly baffled and unsatisfied, as did Gemma Nisbet’s ‘Walking Home’ and ‘Playing with Ramirez’ by Paulette Gittins.

Hilary Hewitt shows a wry humour in ‘The Cushion Phase’: ‘…his eyes are the most tempting colour, like seventy per cent Lindt.  Google is quite clear about the beneficial effects of dark chocolate.’ (114). I enjoyed Margaret Everingham’s humour too in ‘Father Figure’.

Another standout is Barbara Knight’s ‘I am Alien’, a clever look at the influences that shape us, from our families to our peers.  The story shows how easily innocence can rupture through little more than apathy, with corruption and sordidness speedily replacing it.

There are certainly some fine stories here. But I have one concern; the seemingly contrived way each story segues from its predecessor.

For example, ‘Laps’ (Naylor-Hampson) features a young surfer and is preceded by another surfing tale (‘That Summer at Manly’ by John Jenkins). A Pregnancy is central to Divola’s ‘Knitting’ as it is to the story that follows, ‘Off the Map’ (Dorothy Simmons).  Amanda Clarke’s ‘The Girl on the Train’ is immediately followed by another train story ‘Kissing Tracks’ by Alyssa Davies. Two thirty-nine-year-old women in Paris (‘The bees of Paris’, Bindy Pritchard), are immediately followed by ‘Francesca Lombardo, aged thirty-nine’ (292) in John Dale’s ‘Expressway’(which is an entertaining and humorous contemporary tale about a Virgin Mary shrine or a murky stain on the concrete wall of the expressway, depending on your point of view).  One father story is followed by another, drugs features in a story and the next one runs with the same theme. After a while, it starts to resemble tag team story-telling.

I find it disconcerting to see themes and patterns emerging from what should be an eclectic collection and I’m not convinced that stories from different authors (competition entries) need to be presented in this way unless they are pieces written to a specific theme.  Still, it’s a minor quibble.

After completing my review, I searched the net to see what others think but didn’t stumble across anything, apart from a considered review from Anne Skyvington in which she names her three favourites.

So I figured I would do the same as Skyvington and share my favourites here, along with some info from the ‘Notes on Contributors’ (which I didn’t read until I’d picked my three):

  • Kristen Levitzke for ‘Solomon’s Baby’. Perth-based teacher, writer, mother. This is a superb story that I don’t think I will ever forget. ‘Solomon’s Baby’ is fearless and thought-provoking.
  • Barry Divola for ‘Knitting’.  Sydney working journo with seven books to his credit. “one wife, one daughter, one cat and no hair”.  I would have preferred to give another writer a ‘moment in the sun’ but I just can’t go past this judges’ favourite.
  • Barbara Knight for ‘I am Alien’. Ah! What a joy to include a ‘late bloomer (75, writing seriously for just eight years), and a fellow Tasmanian to boot! (Incidentally, if you had asked me which story was written by a 75-year-old retiree, I would never have guessed it was ‘I am Alien’).

I hope some of my blog visitors (or visitors to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted) will purchase this latest publication from Margaret River Press (available here) and, if you do, please come back and let us know your three favourite stories.

BOOK DETAIL:
Knitting and other stories. Ed, Richard Rossiter, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe WA, 2013.
ISBN 978-0-97872180-8-7

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “KNITTING and other Stories (Ed. Richard Rossiter): Book Review

  1. Pingback: Knitting and Other Stories, Edited by Richard Rossiter, Guest Review by Karenlee Thompson | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. I have Barry Divola’s book of short stories here that was published by Affirm Press a couple of years ago. I was just thinking the other day that I should try to read it. You’ve inspired me to try to do so.

    I was intrigued by your comment that “I find it disconcerting to see themes and patterns emerging from what should be an eclectic collection”. I’m not sure there is a “should” in how to present such a collection? What order would you do? Alphabetical? I understand that editors spend a lot of time considering the order in which to present an anthology and I rather liked the connections Irma Gold made in her Canberra centenary The invisible thread (which is not about Canberra, but contains pieces by writers associated with Canberra). I found it fun wondering why certain pieces had followed each other … and the links often enhanced the pieces. She could have made it chronological, as the pieces span a century (give or take), or done it by form as there are fiction (novel excerpts and complete short stories), non-fiction and poetry pieces, but she didn’t.

    • I’d be very interested to hear what you think of Divola’s other stories, Sue.
      I do agree that there are no right or wrong ways to present a collection of short stories and, of course, it is the Editor’s prerogative after all.
      But I guess my concern here was that I wondered if the choice of which of the 256 competition entries were to be published was based on the merit of the individual stories or if it was skewed to fit the way the stories fit together. I guess I’d hate to think that an entry of high calibre and artistic merit could have been left out in favour of one that went with the flow.
      Then again, I suppose once the winners are chosen, it is fair for Editors to select on whatever basis they like.

      • Hi Karenlee
        The selection of stories was totally based on merit not how they would fit together. The judges always select the stories and then the Editor works on how best to present them. It would be totally inappropriate to select stories on anything other than merit.

      • I have such a problem putting my reply in the right place on wordpress but I am replying to Caroline’s comment that the stories selected are totally based on merit and I am absolutely thrilled that this is the case! I hope I caused no offence to the Editor and I can only ‘tip my lid’ because he has therefore done a fantastic job in putting these stories together. It really is quite amazing that, from such a large number of entries, these segueing opportunities have arisen. Well done, Richard Rossiter.
        And thanks to Caroine for clarifying.

  3. Thank you so much for your kind appraisal of ‘Solomon’s Baby’, Karenlee. I’m truly delighted to hear that you enjoyed my story. I’m just chuffed.

    ‘Knitting & other Stories’ is a great collection, beautifully packaged. I know a number of people who have developed a newfound respect for the form since reading this anthology. Short stories are certainly a very convenient mode of escapism, particularly when so many of us lead such busy lives.

    Margaret River Press have recently started a new initiative: ‘Commuter Reads’. You can download a new short story every fortnight for free here:

    http://www.margaretriverpress.com/news/presenting-commuter-reads/

    I think ‘Solomon’s Baby’ is ‘first cab off the rank’.

    • Another great initiative from Margaret River Press. ‘Commuter Reads’. Love it.
      I agree that the short story is, once again, getting the respect it deserves and it truly is the perfect form for todays limited time/limited attention span dilemmas.
      Thanks for stopping by Kristen and I’m pleased that lots of people will have the opportunity to read ‘Solomon’s Baby’. Well done.

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