Tag Archives: short stories

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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The China Factory by Mary Costello: Book Review

Tiny frissons of recognition hit you at unexpected moments as you dip into the lives of Mary Costello’s ordinary men and women.

The twelve short stories woven together in The China Factory have a deeply personal feel, as though the author has spent some time exploring the slow ‘going’ of lives and relationships.

9781922147417_large_cover

Mothers and fathers and siblings come under Costello’s unwavering gaze but its husbands and wives that sit most starkly in the light her telescopic lens.  In ‘Things I See’ we feel a husband’s slow distancing, the threads of a relationship that become something less because “with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him” (56).

In the title story, the casual convenience of a tentative friendship between a young girl and an older man – workmates, distant relatives and driving companions – forms the backdrop to a coming of age story that focuses on duty and the burden of loyalty.

The narrator and Gus (a behemoth of a man) both worked in a China factory so, later, the things that become Gus-reminders seem at once both obvious and subtle.

“The sight of a bible in a hotel room now, or a drunk in a doorway, or my mother setting down her china cups, or even King Kong, all call Gus to mind.” (20)

It is a tale about moving on – geographically and personally – and what and who we leave behind, why they are left behind, and what we take of them with us.

“I would like to have mitigated the loss and the guilt I felt at leaving them behind, the feeling that I was escaping and walking away.  It is not an easy walk, I longed to tell them, but I’m not sure anyone was listening.”(21)

‘This Falling Sickness’ is my favourite story from the collection.  While its subject matter of death – not one, but two  – is a harrowing one, Costello’s understated method bites.

Upon hearing of her ex-husbands death,  Ruth “stared at the floor and felt herself folding” (72).  As Ruth copes with this death, she relives the more harrowing one in the distant past, the deaths connected by blood.

Costello effortlessly segues between the two deaths and captures grief so perfectly;  the detailed pictures of ‘before’ and the snapshots that collect around the fuzziness in the ‘after’ when  Ruth sees her mother’s shoes sinking into the clay, hears her sister’s voice crack as she reads a poem at the graveside and the roar of the traffic beyond the walls of the cemetery.

A husband’s adultery closes out the grief, a liaison that Ruth choses to see as “not unforgivable” because, she decided “it was easier to be the one hurt, than the hurter” (85).

‘This Falling Sickness’ brought me, as the saying goes, undone.

Light creeps into the shadows behind everyday façades as Costello quietly shocks with deft pauses and the great unsaid.  Beautiful.

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for the opportunity to read Mary Costello’s first book of stories.  This review is cross-posted there.

BOOK DETAIL
Costello, Mary. The China Factory, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN 9-781922-147417

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REVENGE by Yoko Ogawa: Book Review

There are some shocking passages in this collection of interwoven short stories from Yoko Ogawa but the one that has lingered longest in my mind is the one I unwittingly stumbled into first.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ is full of beauty, appealing to the senses with a sky that is a “cloudless dome of sunlight”, the gentle sounds of a woman knitting and a man making balloon animals, the sweet scent of vanilla in the bakery, two women talking softly, casually.  One of the women has come to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday.

‘How old is he?’ asks her fellow customer.

“Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead.”(4)

The three little sentences stunned me.

The reaction of the other woman is interesting, totally unconventional, and yet somehow fitting.  And the glimpses we are given into the reconciliation of the bereaved woman with her grief are heart-wrenchingly believable.

‘Fruit Juice’ is a strange tale that I read twice but I am still not sure if the messages I took from it were intended by the author.  “I could only watch and wait until she ate through her sadness” (23) led me to reflect on the debilitation of anorexia, bulimia and overeating but ‘Fruit Juice’ also has something to say about the passage of time and its effect on grief so that tears are finally released as “sadness was coming to her peacefully from the distant past.” (24)

Ogawa seems to have fun weaving the fabric of her stories from within and without so, for example, a mother’s death from an infection in the nose translates thus:-

“Until that woman came to live with us, a mother to me was no more than a metallic sensation in the back of my nose.” (41)

‘Broken Heart’ is almost too surreal for words: a heart that sits on the outside of a body, an obsessive bag-maker, and a dead hamster somehow all combine to tell a story, the point of which totally eludes me.  I get an understanding of the literality of a broken heart but not enough for this piece to work for me.

There is some sublime writing.  This from ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’:-

“But the air was stale, as though the room were holding its breath, and the only thing that moved was the light from the windows when the oak leaves fluttered outside.” (87)

‘The Man Who Sold Braces’ perfectly captures the romantic adventurousness of an uncle who materialises every so often and brightens up the mundane life of his nephew. But, ultimately, it is a sad story in a ‘cats in the cradle’ kind of way.

Kind of creepy, sometimes scary, occasionally downright weird, Revenge is a wildly thought-provoking work written, I believe, by someone who is no stranger to grief. Now that I come to think of it, the collection could just as easily have been given the title of Grief as Revenge.

Some reviews of interest:

For Rhoda Feng at the Huffington Post – ‘Reading Yoko Ogawa is akin to watching a film by David Lynch’

Stu at Winstons Dad – likens the collection to a Japanese puzzle box.

I agree with Lisa Hill when she writes in her review at ANZ LitLovers that the Revenge Collection does seem ‘Japanese’ in its preoccupations, despite not being overtly so in setting.

BOOK DETAIL:
Ogawa, Yoko. Revenge, translated to English by Stephen Snyder, Harvill Secker, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-846-55502-2

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Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, Edited by Delys Bird: Book Review

The latest outing from Margaret River Press is Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images edited by Delys Bird.

Fire

The dark cover image gives a ‘heads-up’ to the sometimes confronting pieces it contains but nothing could have prepared me for the impact of Cassandra Atherton’s ‘Raining Blood and Money: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’. Her description of shoeboxes filled with personal belongings as “mini-coffins” is perfectly sad and sadly perfect.   The term “thud-dead” that is the motif in this devastating imagined recounting is a quote from an eyewitness of the infamous 1911 New York factory fire and Atherton uses it to devastating effect. Of all the thud-deads repeated throughout the story, it was this one that left me breathless:

One of the girls hurtles into a street-light before her broken body lands on a pile of others beneath her.  A muted thud-dead. (89)

If you know nothing of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I can recommend reading blood and money as a mini-history lesson.  If you know it well, the piece will bring the scene to life in all its unimaginable horror.

Another historical piece amongst the contemporary is ‘No Surrender’, in which Dorothy Simmons presents a different view of the Kelly Gang through a mother’s perspective.  Coincidentally, ANZ LitLovers (where this review will be cross posted) has a recent review of Jean Bedford’s novella fictionalizing the life of Ned Kelly’s sister Kate. Such vignettes into the lives of the ‘bit-players’ in these vast sagas help bring history to life.

David Milroy’s commissioned piece ‘Walardu and Karla’ presents as a pastiche of Aboriginal legend and contemporary realism.  Here we find Slim Dusty cassettes, the shadow of the Flying Doctor’s plane and a faded Dockers jumper, woven into the dreams and landscapes of tradition.  There is some great comic writing in this story like the description of the local expert on the Karla legend who is “happy to live the rest of his life in beer, in cigarettes and in-cognito” (16-17).  And this delightful gem where Alfred fondly recalls meeting the love of his life:-

Then from out of the darkness there came the voice of a goddess.

Ya got any cigarettes?

He turned slowly to face his destiny.

Nup! Don’t smoke. (20)

Underneath this rocking-good humour is a compact and special love story.

Kate Rizzetti writes beautifully in ‘Cool Change’ about a “man of the mountain, as strong and unyielding as the gums he felled for a living” (52), opening her story with Keith’s “unshaven kiss” (49) and ending with an imagined gentle kiss on his “whiskery cheek” (60).

Some of the poems are exceptional, from Paul Hetherington’s ‘Bushfire’ (“Rain came in drops like stones/clagging ash, banging roofs,/making molten dreams” [72]) to Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s expert melodic alliteration (“the lost, last bathroom was green and white,/leafily lead-lit” [73]) in ‘Coming Down to Earth’Miranda Aitken’s ‘Isaac’s Land is Burning’ needs to be seen on the page to appreciate its cleverness.

Metaphors and similes provide for some great imagery in Clair Dunn’s ‘Quest for Fire.  An old termite mound opposite a burnt out tree are, together, “like rusty bedheads” (185)  and morning is described beautifully as a “smudge of indigo appearing in the east” as the narrator feels “the soft underbelly of night” at her back “curling up in hollows and burrows” (195).

The book itself is easy on the eye with an interesting use of white space and thoughtful placement of images, one of my favourite plates being Aerial King Lake – Black Saturday 2009 by John Gollings.  It is so difficult to believe that the image is un-manipulated apart from a “small increase in contrast and red saturation” (39).

This is a collection that invites dipping into, here and there and I am sure I will revisit it many times, perhaps finding kernels of understanding and picking new favourite pieces.  For now though, the thud-deads of ‘Raining Blood and Money’ won’t leave me alone.

Available from Margaret River Press.
This review cross posted at ANZ LitLovers.

BOOK DETAIL

Bird, Delys, Ed. Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe, WA, 2013.
ISBN: 9-780987-218070

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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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An Unknown Sky and Other Stories by Susan Midalia: Book Review

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.

anunknownsky_web_mainEdn

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.

BOOK DETAIL:
Midalia, Susan. An Unknown Sky and other stories, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-74258-427-0

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The Swarm by Andy Kissane: Book Review

 

My reaction to the first story in Andy Kissane’s collection?
           Kissane, ya killin’ me here!
           Killing me softly with a rare Montagnana cello and a little girl named Katherine.  ‘In my Arms’ is a story of grief told with exquisite rawness.  The narrator is selling his cello with its “scroll curling down to kiss itself” (11) and we cannot understand why. 
          At first, I think it is the narrator’s fear of failure that’s urged him to put a ‘for sale’ ad in the paper.  Or does he have too many other commitments?  Later, I wonder if fatherhood saps his creativity.  Does his wife not give him the encouragement he needs?  Has his room of one’s own been set aside for some other purpose?  I want to shake the narrator: ‘But this is your life!’ I cry.  ‘This is what you’ve worked for all these years’.  Why, why why?
          There are spots of humour providing relief from the sadness: a lost condom, a sexual tension to rival Elizabeth Bennet’s or Diver Dan’s (the narrator’s benchmarks), the embarrassment of an important conversation via mobile phone on a train with one arm around a cello, the crazy purchase of fuel when there’s a baby urging to be born.
           But ‘In My Arms’ will leave you breathless, hollowed out and exhausted despite its final note of hope.

I have previously read two of the eleven shorts featured in the Swarm: ‘The Fibbing Bird’ (The Sleepers Almanac, No 7. Sleepers Publishing, 2011) and ‘The Elusive Tenant’ (Escape: an anthology of short stories. Spineless Wonders, 2011) and there are others acknowledged as having appeared in different versions in other publications. 

Kissane captures a multitude of voices in this collection.
           There’s a doting bogan of a brother with a souped up Monaro and a reckless abandon in ‘Vanilla Malted’. 
           In ‘When the Television Died’, Justin is a bored husband waiting for his wife to come home (later and later) from work. “Eight thirty. Nine. Nine forty-two. Ten thirteen” (37).
           In other stories, we hear the voices of – variously – a father, a friend, an actor, a cheating husband.   Each central character unfolds through a subtle yet insightful pinpointing of voice.         

Art imitates life in stories like ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Going Underground’.  In the former, three actors from NIDA meet up after a hiatus, and an awkward moment is “like a pause in a Becket play” (65).  In the latter, a daughter, feeling smothered by her parents, ditches her commerce studies to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.

I aspire to be Frida Kahlo: to make Kandinsky weep, to paint faces that Picasso might have marvelled at.  These artists are dead, but in my studio they offer advice, they talk back to me. (109)

           The runaway artist is immersed in creating a series of paintings of Rosa Luxemburg.  The penultimate canvas features Rosa in bed with her lover Kostja:

 I paint Kostja so he looks elated, but the scene feels too glib, too simple.  It’s only when I introduce Rosa’s cat, Mimi, that the paining acquires some spunk, and I become excited and a little infatuated with my creation. (112)

           The art/life juxtaposition features again in ‘A Mirror to the World’ and, despite not being overly fond of writers writing fictionally about writers (which usually come across as being self-indulgent and a bit too twee), the plot and subtext were so cleverly entwined, that I warmed to it.

Kissane’s stories play to my synaesthetic core.  He colours his worlds with a wonderful stimulation of the senses, bringing art and music together with the written word so that I can touch the music, hear the painting, feel the words in my heartbeat.  It’s a rare gift in a writer.  I read that he is the current Coriole National Wine Poet and his poems feature on their latest Cabernet Shiraz.  Sounds like a poster-boy for synesthesia to me.

I was delighted when a favourite character from one story recurred – or at least got a mention in passing – in another, giving The Swarm a coherence, and a sense of reality, of authenticity.  In particular, I loved the circularity of reading about Michael and his cello named Jacqueline from an entirely different perspective in the last story, thus leaving me with the poignancy of that first story (which of course I just had to read again).

BOOK DETAIL:
Kissane, Andy. The Swarm, Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe, Australia, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-921450-55-6
Distributed by Inbooks, it is available in both print and e-book formats.

This review is cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers.

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