I have been exceptionally quiet on the review front of late. I had committed to review a couple for the Australian Women Writers Challenge but, apart from that, I have insulated myself a little to concentrate on my own work. However, as Lisa Hill – one of the busiest women I know – is once again hosting Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers and will no doubt be continuing her phenomenal reading and posting routine, I feel the very least I can do is offer up one review.
After the Carnage by Tara June Winch is a collection of short stories, themed (it seems to me) on humanity; what it means to be human, to travel great distances both literally and metaphorically, to see and hear and question, to taste fear and to touch poverty.
I was so busy wallowing in the Australianness of the opening story ‘Wager’ that I skated over the abandoned pre-teen Tom just to hear more of the conversation between the now adult Tom and his stepfather. Tom is so eager to please, talking about hoping to become a doctor in “a little voice so he wouldn’t think I was trying to be a big man under his roof” (5) and ordering chips and rissoles with a question mark, by way of a request for approval from his mother. My sense of unease grew as the grog flowed and the pokies coerced but – despite having been given a warning in the opening sentence – I still wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of the denouement when it reared up and socked me in the jaw.
‘After the Carnage, More’ is stunning in its simple, ordinary descriptions of a complex, extraordinary situation. On a day in Lahore when the sky is “rapidly remodelling itself in ash” (35), a man remains calm in the face of his own pain and injury while he tries to quell any underlying sense of panic about the location and condition of his wife.
My two favourite stories of the thirteen – ‘Easter’ and ‘The Proust Running Group of Paris’ – both echo back to my long-held belief that fiction can be as important as non-fiction (sometimes more so) in telling us truths. Fiction can wrap truth into manageable and palatable parcels that are a joy to unwrap, even when the contents are far from jubilant.
The narrator of ‘Easter’, an American journalist, has “bottled” his memories into:
. . . the taste of yak cheese, the pungent marijuana, the hangover from brandy and altitude, the feeling of dirty hostel blankets, every conversation. (88)
He tries to be a rock for his sister. As she cries on a Paris street, he comforts her with an arm over her shoulders, “as if protecting her from a wild wind blowing in from Ohio” (99) and he hoards the memory (just as he’s done with those from childhood) so that he can revisit it.
In ‘Easter’, the author gives us relatable packaged memories but in ‘The Proust Running Group of Paris’ it is the characters that tinkle a faint bell from the past. If you’ve ever known an alcoholic intimately, you’ll likely relate to this description of Barcry, the first runner to join the group, formed online through a forum topic.
Barcry was a four-month-sober alcoholic who’d drink everything in a two-mile vicinity, until all last orders were called, and then he would arrive home and open his children’s Holy Communion non-alcoholic wine – in the faint hope that the stuff had fermented in the previous decade. (159)
I was mildly disappointed that many of the stories are peppered with the universal Americanisms of cell phones and Moms while I hankered for more wattle flowers and possums scratching at fly screens but Tara June Winch has taken us around the world with this collection and I, for one, feel all the richer for it.
Tara June Winch, After the Carnage, UQPress, St Lucia, Queensland, 2016
This book was gifted to me by a very dear friend.