John Kinsella. Crow’s Breath. Victoria, Australia: Transit Lounge. RRP: $29.95, 256pp, ISBN: 9781921924811
Peter Cowan. Homecoming. Joondalup, Western Australia: Peter Cowan Writers Centre. RRP $35, 72pp.
Like rats to the Pied Piper, writers flock to Australia’s landscape to explore the raw, elemental aspects of human life under a relentless Australian sun. Western Australian writers, particularly, seem gripped by the wide brown landscape and people’s ability to negotiate an existence within such an unforgiving space, and two recent short story collections emerging from the West are no exception.
Both John Kinsella’s Crow’s Breath and Homecoming, a commemorative collection of Peter Cowan short stories, deal in landscape—for the most part, a parched, sun-faded, overexposed rural Western Australia. A journey into either collection is a journey into each writer’s heart of darkness, which for Kinsella lies in the desolate, moral isolation of half-forgotten Wheatbelt towns and drought ravaged farms; Cowan focuses on landscape’s ability to inhabit a person, to absorb them into the shape of a place.
Kinsella’s career-long preoccupation with human impact on landscape pervades Crow’s Breath but perhaps not as much as avid readers of his poetry might expect. His prose writing is stylistically sparse, without the rolling imagistic resonance of his poetry, and some criticism has been levelled at Kinsella’s Crow’s Breath stories for their bleached stylisation of rural life. These stories, however, find their plangency in an aching landscape that rejects its inhabitants, characters who are distanced not only from their sense of belonging to a place but from their humanity as well. Strange things happen in forlorn, unmoored places—a farmer murders his dogs, a man hides a UFO in his shed, a secretary poses as a country doctor—and yet Kinsella normalises this strangeness with strains of Gothic inevitability.
Homecoming commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the Peter Cowan Writers Centre and provides a fascinating historical synopsis of the Writers Centre’s establishment and ongoing work to support Perth writers. A collaborative publication from the Writers Centre itself, Homecoming contains a collection of forwards and anecdotes from past and present members on the founding and importance of the Peter Cowan Writers Centre and the life and work of Peter Cowan.
Styled as a coffee table book, Homecoming includes a number of black and white photographs taken by Peter Cowan of the landscapes that inspired much of his writing. These images provide a haunting accompaniment for the eight Cowan short stories also included in the book. The stories, all previously published elsewhere, reflect Australian landscape as an inhabiting force. Rich in detail, colour and the textures of place, Cowan’s stories typify a style of Australian writing that glorifies landscape; where Cowan diverges from expectations of stoic bushmen and larrikin shearers is in the power he gives the landscape to possess a character. Through Cowan’s characters, readers feel the deadly pull of the land to ensnare its human occupants, drawing them towards their animalistic selves.
In both Crow’s Breath and Homecoming, readers will feel an undertow of the Australian Gothic, a haunting of and through landscape. Cowan’s stories are lighter and more lyrical, a reflection of the period in and of which he wrote, while Kinsella’s stories captivate with their immediacy and treacherous presence.
Heather Delfs is a writer and scholar based in Perth, Western Australia. She writes fiction, non-fiction (memoir and life writing) and the occasional poem. Her poetry has been published in anthologies in the UK and the US. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia in Creative Writing, with a research focus on cross-cultural identity as a site of anxiety in narrative fiction. Tweet her @barefootthink.