Australian Love Stories, ed. Cate Kennedy. Carlton, Vic.: Inkerman & Blunt. RRP: $28.99, 304pp, ISBN: 9780987540164
The Best Australian Stories 2014, ed. Amanda Lohrey. Collingwood, Vic.: Black Inc. RRP: $29.99, 288pp ISBN: 9781863956963
I have a penchant for short stories: the adrenalin rush or seductive lure towards a tight synthesis of imagery and setting, character and plot. Or no plot. As long as there is that sensuous surrender to the pleasure of persuasion. In Australia, the short story has a strong tradition from Henry Lawson to Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Tim Winton and Gail Jones. Yet for me, some recent single-author editions have proved disappointing with an over-reliance on contrivance and exposition. Where are the Australian Chekhovs or Alice Munros? The Henry Lawsons of the twenty-first century? Two recent editions have restored my faith and were a pleasure to review. They are Australian Love Stories (Inkerman & Blunt) and The Best Australian Stories 2014 (Black Inc).
Love stories are not something I automatically associate with the Australian psyche. In my mind, they belong more to nineteenth century Romanticism with the passion and drama of the Bronte sisters or the more refined Jane Austen. These lovers are unequivocally heterosexual, as in the medieval chivalric tales that preceded them and the popular romance novels of the 1980s. Such stereotypes have long since been challenged, of course, and there is no trace of them here. But is there anything meaningful I can learn about love from such a slim volume?
It was with this sense of cautious curiosity that I embarked, and can scarcely claim to be any the wiser now. But that’s beside the point; what I did relish were the myriad computations and complexities of relationship encompassed here. It’s a surprising selection. Surprising because of the anthology’s broad scope, with not a whiff of melodrama, sentimentality or cliché. Surprising too for its narrative arc, reflecting ‘the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself and us in the process’ (5), as editor Cate Kennedy says in her introduction. It begins with the ‘sensuous weight’ (10) of long-term love, tinged with forbidden pleasure, and journeys on to the ‘madness that descends on you, like an illness’ (40) in Leah Swann’s ‘Why Cupid is Painted Blind.’ Different facets of love are arranged under seven headings, each named after a whimsical phrase from one of the stories: ‘Adrift in Shards and Splattered Fruit’; ‘Firm as Anchors, Wet as Fishes’. I read the collection from cover to cover through the depths and promise of enduring love, to youthful infatuation, uncertainty and regret, and the messiness of misunderstandings.
Not every story was of personal resonance. I’m in two minds, for example, about Carmel Bird’s ‘Where the Honey Meets the Air’. It’s the last in the collection and a cheeky riff on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida set in country Victoria, where the political dynamics feel disturbingly familiar. A little too slick for its own good, perhaps? Yet I recognised aspects of myself in many, regardless of sexuality or circumstance: the relief of the boy when his mother finally ditches an abusive lover, and his wounded swallow flies free (‘Swallow’ by Jon Bauer); the eyes of the newborn, claiming her mother’s heart (Natasha Lester, ‘It Used to be His Eyes’); and the illicit affair in a small Australian coastal town (Lois Murphy, ‘Eggshells’). The gay couple enjoying a celebratory hug in the nursing home shower (Allison Browning, ‘These Bones’); and the Greek-Australian epic that ‘starts as a romance and ends as a tragedy…there are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret’ (Claire Varley, ‘A Greek Tragedy’, 155). What a rich and multi-cultural society we are – and refreshingly down-to-earth, it seems, even in love.
Australian Love Stories represents a thoughtful arrangement of heartfelt tales and a fine literary achievement, a happy mix of familiar and new voices. Selected and edited by Cate Kennedy in collaboration with Donna Ward and her team at Inkerman & Blunt, it is a companion to Australian Love Poems, which has been well received, and Australian Love Letters due in 2016. With its midnight cover, silver motif and aqua lettering, it’s an elegant book; the perfect indulgence for a winter’s night by the fire.
In the spirit of winter reading, my next fireside adventure, The Best Australian Stories 2014, proved an equal delight. This selection presents award-winning author Amanda Lohrey’s picks from established and emerging writers published between August 2013 and August 2014, although some appear for the first time in print here.
Several stories in this collection explore questions of identity and belonging through a unique personal lens. In Kate Ellington’s ‘The Interpreter’, for example, language becomes a minefield for Yalda as she struggles to breach the divide between Australian officialdom and traumatised refugees on Christmas Island: ‘[w]ords don’t cross borders as boldly as boats do’ (85). ‘Sugar Bag Dreamin’ Country’ by Mark Smith takes us to the Northern Territory outback where young legal worker, Ray Cunningham, transports Aboriginal elder, Jimmy Sugar, from the lock-up at Peppi Crossing to Adelaide River for sorry business. Taking an enforced detour because of a bushfire, however, Jimmy takes charge as he enters home country and the roles are reversed. Then there is Christmas in the tropics on the eve of a family breakup, with the cry of the mangrove fruit bats forming a backdrop to plum pudding, paper hats and the usual dynamics (Edwina Shaw, ‘Mrs Sunshine’).
The question of belonging also finds metaphorical expression in the context of work, relationships, creativity, mortality, and the blurring of lines between: a prized coffee table becomes the tragic vehicle of a family’s undoing (Shaun Prescott, ‘The Coffee Table’); Gen Ys Tonia and Gary answer an ad placed by a Gen X couple seeking substitutes for their perfect lifestyle as they pull the pin in a last ditch effort to inject life back into their marriage (Melanie Joosten, ‘Just Like Us’); and ‘an ordinary woman’ (75) rejects the ‘biology-as-destiny’ (79) hospital narrative as she and Anthony determine to love their Down syndrome baby ‘without thinking, without questioning’ (83, Fiona Place, ‘Now I See’).
Among the most outstanding for me were two stories in which fiction and reality collide: Adam Narnst’s ‘Blue People’ and JYL Koh’s ‘Civility Place’. In ‘Blue People’, a struggling author works on his novel in between marking assignments during the graveyard shift at a Gold Coast hotel, whilst the carpark outside is cordoned off as a crime scene: ‘[t]he dreams intermingle, like everything else in this place, the difference between characters and real life is not simple. The story slides through my fingers’ (72).
‘Civility Place’ addresses the reader directly, involving us in a surreal ride through the extreme ennui of a corporate lawyer. Although nothing productive or meaningful is actually accomplished in this twelve hundred storey glass tower, the office nonetheless reappears in your living room, so that you end up commuting ‘from work to work from work’ (141). It’s a familiar cycle.
These stories are not always comfortable; some are confronting and some made me cry, yet all are well-crafted and encompass a great deal with succinct economy. What I especially loved about this anthology was the way the themes interwove and overlapped, creating kaleidoscopic shifts that left me feeling illuminated and enriched. No doubt every reader will experience these patterns differently, as individual voices combine to produce a snapshot of how some of our best writers interrogate who we are and what we care about.
Rosemary Stevens‘s short fiction, travel books and articles have been published throughout Australasia. She teaches creative and professional writing at Curtin University.