Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill: Book Review


I am keen to read a couple of books due for release over the next couple of months but, feeling somewhat guilty over my tardiness in producing a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’m reviewing here a short story collection (my favourite fodder) published last year.

Michelle Cahill’s poetic roots shine through in this startling collection of stories: each an homage to a literary figure, from the poet Fernando Pessoa to JM Coetzee. Many of the characters are familiar but they may not all be known to every reader and yet it doesn’t totally govern the readability of the collection. Even if some of the allusions pass you by (I’m sure I missed plenty of subtle references and intertextualities), it doesn’t affect the next story.


For review purposes, I sought some clarification by reading the author’s note on the publisher’s website but phrases such as “I wanted to cultivate an aesthetic which expressed contingency without shame or compromise” and “I haven’t rejected structure, but I have trusted the spaces where narrative collapses” didn’t help me in my quest for further enlightenment. I mean this as no criticism, just an observation that my brow may not be as high as Cahill’s intended readership.

The stories don’t read in that usual epistolary way of a letter from one person to another; to me they are more like a series of tributes.

‘Chasing Nabokov’, in which Cahill transplants Nabokov to contemporary Sydney, is one of my favourites, even with its uncomfortable Lolita-mirrored premise. There is still something unsettling about a young narrator (surfie-chick) who is cautiously aware of a forty-year age difference, taking us from “the loose folds of skin around his neck [that] resembled a toad’s” (210) to “I felt I would let him do anything, my body a throbbing receptacle for his love.” (216).

‘Duende’ is a tragic love story: poetry and loneliness in Spain, an uncoupling of men and an unravelling against a backdrop of bullfighting, complete with Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. There is a deep sadness and release in “The river is a ballad, twisting, weeping, bleeding.” (52), followed by hope and lightness in the final sentence:

 It is a perfect day, the sun hot, the sky intensely blue with the soft motion of pigeon wings breaking the light. (53)

‘Letter to Neil Young’ resonates with me:

The road taught me what I know about love and losing. I can tell you how it tempered me like a drug, sedating and comforting me. (138)

And, just imagine:

 I knock once. The white plyboard door is ajar. I can hear an echo of Kurt Cobain, and your voice, the metallic whine of a harmonica. (139)

I can’t resist this final appeal to the senses:

 Agarbathi incense floats through the house and maybe I’m guessing but something like the chocolatey aroma of Alaskan thunderfuck … (140).

I love the front: Madeleine Kelly Treatment for Hysteria II (2008) and there’s some exceptional writing between the covers.

Check out Jonathan Shaw’s review.

Cahill, Michelle. Letter to Pessoa, Giramondo Publishing, NSW. 2016. ISBN: 9781925336146



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4 responses to “Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill: Book Review

  1. Reblogged this on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and commented:
    Check out Karenlee Thompson’s review of Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill, nominated for the ALS Gold Medal.

  2. Pingback: 2017 ALS Gold Medal longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. *chuckle* I see from a review at Goodreads that the requisite height of the brow might be a problem not just for you and me!

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