Rowe, Josephine. Here Until August. Black Inc. Books, 2019. RRP $29.99. 208pp. ISBN: 9781863959933
Unravelling, one bit at a time, the ten stories that make up Josephine Rowe’s collection Here Until August, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are more than ten. The density and detail of each gives the impression that there are many more because within each story Rowe gives us a tale, within a tale, within a tale, peeling back layers to get to the bottom of each character, each place and each circumstance.
There is such a plethora of detail, in fact, that this collection is the kind of thing that requires undivided attention. Each story, each sentence, each bit of dialogue, each word has been so carefully placed as to drive the narrative onward and build each character out of jigsaw pieces into a full picture. Nothing is superfluous; the skill of the storytelling is simply beautiful.
There is a universality to the stories in this collection—the setting of each as clear as a photograph, even without having been to these places. Montreal, Toronto, Newfoundland, Western Australia; Rowe traverses the world by country and by character, pushing into the nooks and crannies of ordinary human lives and revealing the extraordinariness of them. These stories are readable, engaging, delightful and written so well that it’s hard not to wonder if she really is this good.
One of the most attention-grabbing elements of these tales is the way the reader is taken on a journey: more and more is revealed through the characters, their lives and actions; the more that’s revealed, the deeper we sink into the story. In ‘Chavez’ we are introduced to a woman left in charge of her neighbour’s dog while her neighbour takes a trip. But she is agoraphobic after the disappearance of her husband. We know nothing of this when we meet her; instead this is revealed, piecemeal, as it happens to her until we have the complete picture.
Before Chavez, I would make micro-promises to myself, micro-rewards I could receive if only I would leave the building. Fresh cigarettes, nice underwear, dark chocolate. (95)
In just these two sentences we come to know much about the character. She needs to bribe herself outside, the kinds of things she promises herself and how the appearance of the dog, Chavez, has changed the way she exists. Her story is told in her voice, in the first person ‘I’, and as such details are only revealed when she thinks of them or acts on them. There is no straight-up ‘why’, just a constant delivery of pieces that the reader is left to put together.
Another reason: because here I was not known. Here no one thought to clutch my hands and wag their heads in tremendous pity. Another reason: the city so recently known as Home had become a facsimile of Home. Which was far more unsettling than being elsewhere. (97)
In just a few pages Rowe has pulled the story on, this woman is forming right in front of our eyes. Further on comes a more definitive reveal,
Then nothing for several days. And nothing for several more, the hush soured to an awful silence … At intervals our phones skittered across the kitchen table, propelled by messages of support from friends. Everyone reverently spelling their words in full, restricting emoji content to cartoon hearts and candles. (117)
But there is no happy ending offered, no sad ending either. The resolution lies in knowing and understanding why this character is the way she is, why the unexpected appearance of a dog in her life, at this point in her life, is a kind of saving grace.
Something must be said for Rowe’s use of place as a character in these stories. Each landscape is as different and unusual as the last. In ‘Sinkers’ a flooded township rowed over by a man intent on scattering his mother’s ashes in the place she was born,
No wind in the valley, the lake doubling everything faithfully. Bathysphere. Ghost gums twinned from their roots, branching towards alternate skies. (67)
In ‘Real Life’, a young couple find themselves not living, but existing through a Montreal winter, their small apartment adding to the claustrophobia that comes from being trapped by inclement weather and working in a menial job,
As winter deepened it seemed crueller and crueller to sacrifice the meagre quota of daily sunlight in the service of these women. (33)
In ‘Horse Latitudes’, the stark deathliness of the Nullabor;
Somebody has that job, but we never catch sight of him. In the morning we’ll roll out to bloody drag marks at the side of the highway. (174)
And in one dream-like ocean crossing, reminiscent of Winton’s Cloudstreet, a family make their way through the water to a West Australian island in ‘Glisk’;
Tonight, after sunset, the shores around the island will be aglow with the visiting swam of bioluminescent phytoplankton, on their anxious, brilliant way to who-knows-where. We’ll perch along the highest bluff in a sprawl of blankets while the waves crash iridescent against the rocks below, sweeping away to leave lonely blue stars stranded here and there, then charging back to reclaim them.’ (4–5)
There is beauty in this book; in the characters and landscapes within, but also in the precise, meaningful prose that often feels like poetry, so vibrant are the images Rowe creates. Here Until August is readable, engaging, complex and beautiful but, most importantly, simply bloody brilliant.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.