Gildfind, H.C. The Worry Front. Margaret River, Western Australia: Margaret River Press, 2018. RRP: $24.00. 296 pp. ISBN: 9780648027577
An elderly lady eats a lot of metal then goes into an MRI machine—this is a great premise for the weird title story of this collection. The Worry Front is a journey of beauty and ruin through broken lives, hearts and bodies (one story is actually called ‘The Broken Body’). All of the stories direct us to something lacking in their human characters, as if the people are examples of society’s emotional poverty and lack of joy, but these stories are also soaked in the richness of experience. The Worry Front is a gathering together of selfish individuals, sad and elusive characters dealing with high stakes and confronting life’s turning points. On reading this collection I was often fascinated by the grotesque and sometimes assaulted by narrative strategy.
Gildfind’s debut collection includes ten short stories and ends with a gothic novella, ‘Quarry’. Most of these have previously been published in an impressive list of the nation’s best literary journals, with the exception of the title story and ‘Solomon Jeremy Rupert Jones’. This publication history attests to the quality of the writing.
The opening story of the collection, ‘The Ferryman’, is a dark tale full of sinister content told in a stream of consciousness style reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield but with less manners. It deploys a particular narrative rhythm that sometimes works and sometimes feels overused: ‘The thoughts circle and circle’ (4), ‘And a baby, a baby shaken and shaken’ (4), ‘but so what, so what’ (5). This story pushes itself to include a paedophile and infanticide in a single tale, and this is a push. As an opening story it is quite different to the rest of the collection and could easily give a reader the wrong impression.
‘The Ferryman’ is followed by the title story with its weird premise. Worry itself exists on a bridge between emotion and thought, and rationalising feeling is a feature of this story. There is some strong writing in here and a cat, Olivia, who is the repository of emotion and more loved by the steely protagonist than any of her dry and self-absorbed human family. The ‘Big Bang’ at the end of the story is deftly told as the narrator ‘move[s] inwards and outwards, all at once’ (39) inside the MRI machine. Subtle writing that could so easily have indulged in showers of gore. There is no doubt Gildfind is a writer worth reading.
The narrative point of view in the stories shifts across the gamut and there is some use of second person and mixtures thereof. This is distracting from the evocative writing and led me to feel like a victim of literary games. Once this is out of the way the stories really strengthen, but the first three are a little strangled, at times, by strategy and attempting a magnitude of story beyond the confines of the short form.
The longer story ‘Solomon Jeremy Rupert Jones’ explores the abrupt end of a life-long relationship and its replacement with more superficial lovers that have less baggage. There are some profound moments in this tale and the space to develop character makes for more depth, though it covers a substantial timeline which costs the reader by denying emotional depth.
Given the opportunity to dive into feeling, this author seems to blossom. ‘Quarry’ is a reissued novella which was first published as part of The Griffith Review Novella Project in 2015. This encapsulates all that is best across the whole, telling the sad tale of Luke, a disfigured chef who emerges as an ambiguous anti-hero. Damaged emotionally and physically by an abusive chef with a pan full of hot oil, Luke is grotesque and silent amid a cast of nervous and nasty kitchen staff in a small town. The quarry of the title is a revegetated lake and focal point of drinking and rooting for the town bogans, who don’t mind a bit of kite-surfing. Luke is quite monstrous and has a dark history as a dog-killer, and there are some very gothic images of dead dogs hanging in the trees around the town. Things unravel around Luke and he, like the quarry-lake, is cold, silent and mysterious with something slimy and broken in his depths. He is a wonderfully drawn, monstrous character and it’s an uneasy, compelling read. Gildfind treats animals badly but does it very well, with great sensitivity to them as characters. The black dog of this story jumped off the pages, slick and beautiful, epitomising the beauty and ruin that is the core of this collection.
Donna Mazza was joint recipient of the Patricia Hackett Prize 2015 for ‘The Exhibit’. Her first novel The Albanian (Fremantle Press, 2007) was awarded the TAG Hungerford Award. In 2018 she presented the Randolph Stow Memorial Lecture at Perth Writer’s Festival and is Fellow for Environmental Writing at Varuna writers centre. She teaches writing and literature at Edith Cowan University South West.