Prendergast, Julia. Bloodrust and Other Stories. Spineless Wonders, 2022. RRP: $24.99, 157pp, ISBN: 9781925052909.
Often when writing as or about women we are told to tone it down, as if any kind of realistic representation of female experience should only pander to the expectation of what women should be like. For that reason, I won’t call Julia Prendergast’s short story collection brave in its representation of female experience, but rather honest in that it shows women in more realistic terms.
In Bloodrust, women are grumpy. They are angry. They are terrible mothers, deviant lovers and complex, hypocritical, flawed human beings. Men are afforded the luxury of being all these things on the page and, finally, in this collection women are also allowed the space to be uncompromisingly themselves.
The stories in this collection are varied in form, style, language and length. They are snapshots of larger lives that draw the reader in and leave the characters in your mind long after you’ve turned the page.
Prendergast has an astute eye for human emotions, seemingly able to capture a feeling and tell a story within a story in the space of a paragraph or sentence. In ‘Today is Tomorrow’, a woman struggles with the perpetual Zoom meetings and endless days of lockdown:
I don’t want to see myself, anymore, in this stupid fucking meeting. I reach for the mouse, blank my image. I subscribe to the chat on the side, a conversation in writing. Connectivity issues, I type. I think it’s the truest thing I’ve written across this empty-full time, where today is tomorrow, a forwards-backwards yesterday, but for words. (81)
This female character is anonymous throughout the story, undefined in looks or by name. But she represents all women who feel that they need to be seen to exist, that they must perform in order to be real. She promises herself that she’ll dress up tomorrow, finds comfort in the ‘black lace ridiculousness’ of a nice bra, thinking that wearing it ‘will make me feel better’ (80). That she finally decides she doesn’t want to see herself is almost a rejection of the persona she is expected to inhabit.
How we view women’s bodies is another theme that runs throughout Bloodrust. Prendergast turns the fetishised stereotype of the slim, attractive female body on its head, and, in doing so, lays bare the reality of that body. In ‘Wrought Iron’ a daughter undresses her grieving, alcohol-dependent mother.
I peel off her undies, clean her jelly-skin with baby wipes under the warmth of the doona. Her polyester slip is scrunched under her pancake breasts. I disentangle her from it, one arm at a time. (75)
There is no idealisation or sexualisation of the female form here; instead, we are presented with a very real and tender description of one woman caring for another. There is no derogatory language that implies the mother is old, and nothing which explicitly describes her shape and size, just these perfectly written observations that give us a full view of her physical and emotional self in one paragraph.
In this collection, Prendergast shows flaws without apology. In ‘Everything that Matters is Silvery White’, a young man, Al, sees his sometime-girlfriend, Emily
on Tommo’s knee, her arm swung around his neck, as if intimacy is nothing more than the punch bowl on the table between them […] She is talking in her sex voice. He is drawn in for a second until his eyes and ears start to work together. Her voice. Tommo’s stiff. (96–97)
That simple line—‘intimacy is nothing more than the punch bowl on the table between them’—tells us immediately the pain and humiliation that Al is feeling. Emily’s disregard for him is shown to be unflinching and unapologetic. She is who she is, regardless of judgement from the outside world.
Bloodrust is an engaging and refreshing collection of short stories, full of reality, truth and complex characters. It’s confronting at times, but in a way that stories need to be in order for the truth to be told.
Jen is a writer, editor, podcast host and event moderator based in Brisbane. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Fremantle Press and now teaches writing, journalism and publishing at Curtin University, where she’s also doing her PhD in creative writing.