Lefevre, Carol. Murmurations. North Geelong, Vic.: Spinifex Press, 2020. RRP $24.95, 112pp, ISBN:9781925950083.
This fine novella landed on my desk the same week a friend sent me footage of a starling murmuration, taken off the coast of Tasmania. Thousands of birds form and reform the giant shape of themselves in the air, a sinuous overlapping cloud. When I try to summon that image and pin it in words to the open page on my computer screen I struggle to capture the movement. Murmurations, with its deft portrayal of myriad overlapping lives and subtle shifts in perspective, engenders in me a similar failure of cognition; the more I read and re-read this novella in short stories, the more I admire its shifting constellations, and the complex ways in which characters from one story surface in another.
While the collection is underscored throughout by a loneliness derived initially from a study of selected paintings by Edward Hopper (Acknowledgements), the stories’ dynamism and shifts mimic the ever-changing nature of our collective humanity; families and intimate alliances form and reform. The work as a whole is a sliding mass but at the same time it compels us to be still, to pay attention to absence and silence, to moments of splintering, to the hints and tiny clues that lead to rupture. The mystery at the heart of this slim volume, the inexplicable death of the charismatic Erris Cleary in mid-life, is never fully explained but serves as the greatest of these absences, providing a space around which the collection and the final historiographic metafictional story revolves.
In ‘The Lives We Lost’, which appears two-thirds of the way through the collection, Jeanie, finding herself bereft of partner and children due to a marital indiscretion, attempts to explain her feelings to a cousin who, begrudgingly, provides her with lodging in a ‘second bedroom’ where there are ‘towers of plastic storage boxes’ and the curtains don’t quite meet (57). Jeanie says, without much hope of being heard, that the curve of her life has altered: ‘“when one life loses direction, those closest are nudged into new orbits; some constellations appear and others vanish”’ (72). The stories are more subtle and fluid than this quote suggests; however, this scene, and Jeanie’s words within it, provide a much-needed moment of emotional reflection and stillness within a book that roils and roils. Here I found a still point from which I could look across the novella as a whole to see that this constant emotional movement is Lefevre’s focus. She is showing us the murmuration of ourselves—the ways in which people with broken-arced lives impact the relationships of others.
Beautifully observed, Murmurations uses the skilful accretion of domestic detail to create scenes and moments of hyper-realist intensity, and yet the stories seem also to float in an unspecified semi-urban space. The forest in which Jeannie paints could be British. Mosses endemic to the British Isles are mentioned, though conceivably they might occur anywhere in Victoria or Tasmania that there is high rainfall; elsewhere, trees lose their leaves in autumn; and the forest is referred to as a ‘wood’ (61). For the most part, however, the stories inhabit internal spaces: a doctor’s office, kitchens and living rooms, cafes… Perhaps, Lefevre’s fascination with the Hopper paintings is responsible for what I perceive as a certain geographical unmooring. Alternatively, as a Western Australian reader, I may be bringing a particular set of expectations to the work. Perhaps I have become so accustomed to landscapes being specifically portrayed—as in Donna Mazza’s recent novel Fauna—that I find the vagary of landscape in Lefevre’s book unsettling.
I was unsettled by this powerful, shifting novella, in which the characters never seem to land but drift, merge and separate on the book’s intimate emotional undertow.
Carol Millner’s poetry and short stories have been published in Australia and New Zealand. She is a casual academic at Curtin University where she is completing a PhD in Creative Writing.