Durneen, Lucy. Wild Gestures. Adelaide: MidnightSun Publishing, 2017. RRP: $24.99, 224 pp. ISBN: 9781925227208
‘You wonder how it is possible that human existence can be so weird, so beautiful, arbitrary, animal, perfect and terrible, so pointless and yet something you would hang on to at all costs, through all suffering, for as long as it takes’ (177).
Lucy Durneen has given us a wonderful series of sixteen short stories and a poem, exploring the mystery, mundanity and madness of our modern lives. Each piece is unique in its voice and tone, and yet as I progressed through the book I noticed the stories were calling to each other, echoing imagery, themes and tropes. Like the effect of inherited gestures in a family, this has resulted in a cohesive collection of beautifully written and incisive stories: ‘In space we are just the remnants of ancient accidental collisions. But this doesn’t explain our longing or desire. It is obscene, if you think about it, the way we take so long to realise anything…It is like the shock of realising that nothing is new, that you—still so resiliently unclonable—are not new’ (54-55).
Linking the reader to the ancients, the whimsical opening poem, ‘Icarus’ daughter’, personalises the Greek myth through the use of the first-person narrator. It hints at some of the themes explored in the book: the consequences of desire; fear of loss; the fragility of a single person’s existence within the immensity of life. The flight of ‘Icarus’ daughter’ is intriguingly reflected in the outcome of the first story, ‘Time is a river without banks’, when the protagonist’s daughter appears to fly into a Chagall-like painting. Like most of the characters in the book, the mother in this story does not seem at ease in her new home: she keeps objects in a rarely viewed trunk to anchor herself to her old life. Menacing personification of the outside environment, as well as a constant feeling of impending doom, give the story a gothic tone. ‘The stillness rushed across the moor and the garden, licking the footings of the house and the balcony, as if they might be afloat’ (17). This unsettling story looks at how our fears of losing those we love cause us to refrain from engaging in life, but the random nature of life means we can only ever have the illusion of control anyway. Durneen looks at the brevity and uncertainty of life through a variety of windows in her book.
Our primitive desires are always floating just below the surface, making us ever close to our evolutionary origins: the anxiety this causes us is examined by Durneen with writerly ease throughout the collection. She reminds us that we are animals, with animal desires and needs, still evolving and searching for meaning. I was intrigued by references to islands that exist in the imaginations of cartographers, and that this may be a human remnant of longing linked to the creatures that first left the sea to walk on land. And then again, by numerous references to the need to return to the ocean…for example in ‘The old madness and the sea’, the protagonist remembers someone saying: ‘All things emerged from the sea only to spend their whole life longing to return to it’ (63).
I especially enjoyed two stories about dying, one from the perspective of a terminally ill man and one from a partner. In ‘It wasn’t Stockhausen’s’ a dying man reflects that: ‘Even before he was diagnosed it seemed to him that most things are pretty peculiar, that so much consequence should be attributed to a life system that is only the result of random catastrophe after all’ (159). We are fragile physical beings, each with our own universe going on inside, each seeking to find meaning in our short lives: death makes this search more urgent. There is no such thing as a perfect death or life—sometimes all we have to leave behind us is a small story, a particularly poignant point from ‘It wasn’t Stockhausen’s’.
In ‘Everything beautiful is far away’ the partner of a dying man reminds us that just because someone is dying doesn’t mean you aren’t angry with them: ‘Illness doesn’t make you a saint’ (50), and she makes choices possibly based on an increased awareness of her own mortality. Durneen speaks credibly about the experience of dying and her exploration of grief in ‘They dedicated the mass for the soul of Paolo Alonso’ is worth looking at; the disconnection from everyday life, as though our DNA is being rearranged by the physical loss of the person we love, is beautifully written.
I love short stories: they are small capsules of satisfaction, when done well. This collection is full of luscious imagery and uncomfortable truths. What it means to be a flawed human dealing with desire, loss and fear is engagingly examined through many viewpoints. Lucy Durneen reminds us that we are never far from our ancient origins—that we may think we are unique individuals but we are always connected to what has gone before. And we will be returned there, without a doubt. I like that.
Susan Ffoulkes is studying English and Creative Writing at Murdoch University and has recently completed an internship at Westerly Magazine. As well as her studies, Susan enjoys writing songs and poetry.