Susan Midalia. Feet to the Stars: and other stories. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing. RRP: $24.99, 180 pp, ISBN: 9781742587547
In previous writing on the short story, Susan Midalia describes the form as ‘a wonderful medium for evoking unsaid or unsayable knowledge’ (2009, 17). The ten stories comprising Feet to the Stars, Midalia’s third collection following A History of the Beanbag (2007) and An Unknown Sky (2012), support this claim and attest to the author’s accomplished command of the concise narrative form.
The stories sweep across social, geographic, emotional and thematic terrains with a keen awareness of the transformative potential of the mundane and unknowable as opportunities for both human growth and evocative storytelling. Human frailty, private insecurities and hidden motives are explored through a diverse range of characters: a widow who visits New York’s attractions with an omnipresent cognisance of her husband’s absence; a high school teacher who is brought out of complacency by the frank observations of a student suffering anorexia nervosa; a nineteen year old man who returns from a backpacking adventure to face the consequences of an unresolved relationship; and a suburban mother and her teenage daughter who see each other in new light through their interactions with a Lebanese family.
Midalia also remarked that writing short stories ‘is an aesthetically exacting business … [requiring] the very difficult negotiation of competing aesthetic obligations’ (2009, 19), to be concise and resonant, ‘to create the illusion of a larger world beyond the comparatively few words on the page’ (2009, 19).
‘A Blast of a Poem’ illustrates Midalia’s intentional negotiation of this fine balance. The story sketches a marriage through selected intimate scenes so that the couple’s maturation from youth to middle-age unfolds gracefully rather than jerkily. This narrative treatment sensitively portrays the couple’s excited hopes for a child: ‘he liked Bella for a girl … Joe for a boy’ (25); frustration when conception proves elusive: ‘my life began to feel like an old-time movie, in which the leaves of a calendar are ripped off and tossed aside by some cruel, invisible hand’ (27); and poignant acceptance of their fate: ‘when Ollie and I were fifty, I saw him hoist someone’s tiny child onto his lap and listen to her babbling … he glanced up and caught my eye and I saw such softness, such tenderness, in his face’ (27).
Corporeality and the emotional resonance of the body permeate the collection in vivid descriptions that pay attention to all the senses. For example, in the same story, the narrator tells us that, ‘I wrapped my arms around him and mooed again, loudly, playfully, to stop myself from washing him with tears’ (27). In another we read: ‘She had lost her taste for ice-cream. She knew it would taste like regret’ (7), and: ‘the tiny flickers of his eyelashes, butterfly dreams on his cheeks’ (3).
While I found the scope engaging and the language worthy of frequent re-reads, a few carefully placed phrases hauntingly reminiscent of contemporary Australian rhetoric arrested me the most. In a conversation about immigration at the foot of the Statue of Liberty two characters exchange: ‘don’t get him started on the shipping companies who made obscene amounts of dollars from this trade in human need’ (15) and ‘the people who failed the test?… I guess they were sent back to where they came from’ (16).
I am reminded that through her writing, Midalia represents the complexity of Australian society and culture with a commitment that suggests a vocation to do so. And how right her choice of form feels to accomplish this.
Midalia, Susan. ‘A Tribute to the Short Story’. Indigo. Spring, 2009.
Helena Kadmos writes short stories and teaches in the English and Creative Writing programme at Murdoch University where she also pursues a research interest in the short story cycle.