Kinsella, John. Pushing Back. Yarraville: Transit Lounge, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 336pp, ISBN: 9781925760712.
We willed the Kombi along the sandy track, keeping it slow so we wouldn’t bog, and parked under a gnarled pepper tree. A hot day, and the pepper tree exuded its belonging-unbelonging scent, and magpies panted and stared us out, leaping onto the track in front of us, and slowly walking aside. The pepper tree wanted to own the atmosphere, we could feel it. (68)
A group of friends and fascists pile into a little red car with the intent on terrorising people on the Nullarbor. A man wrestles with guilt and alienation as a gunman murders the family down the road instead of his own. A farming family is turned on its head by a son’s animal rights beliefs. The stories in John Kinsella’s collection Pushing Back are morally complex and often challenging. The characters are sometimes racist, misogynistic and distant. But they are also sometimes unsure, isolated or mocked for who they are.
The pathos in these stories is beautifully evoked, from the boy with an absent father in ‘No More Tangles’, who is beaten by his peers for refusing to cut his hair, to the young magician in ‘Magic Child’, about whom the neighbours spread homophobic gossip. In ‘I’m a Little Tea-Pot’ a woman is horrified by her upper-class psychiatrist lover’s callousness. In ‘Echolocation’, a powerful flight of fancy, some unknown presence robs humans of their senses in defence of the bush and habitat in which it lives.
The stories are often narrated by the least likeable characters, for example, by the judgemental neighbours themselves in ‘Magic Child’. And therein lies the complexity of the collection. It is impossible to not empathise, but there is often deep discomfort in the reading. In each story is a person, or relationship, that was formed by the country and the society that brought them up. The push and pull of desire, doubt, isolation and connection run like a river through the heart of the collection, informing each story. If there were an overall feeling, it would be loneliness.
He felt like he was looking way down through the board, down below the shearing shed, all the way to a centre he couldn’t really imagine. His skin prickled under his greasies, and he thought, The boy is all around us, even if they’ve got him packed up in that damned urn. He’ll be free soon—might not be ‘his place’, but there’s no owning none of this, not by us lot anyway, and the wind will take him wherever he wants to go. (185)
The stories circle Western Australia for the most part, create it in scent and sight and flesh. It’s easy to imagine them all occurring simultaneously, from the Wheatbelt, to the hills, to the city. A patchwork social fabric, linked by place and some understanding of bore water stains and red-tailed cockatoos and exclusion. All of these characters are of this place. Kinsella’s evocation of the rural spaces and the urban fringe is rich and familiar at a bone deep level. The place is as much a character as anyone else, equally fraught and carrying a morally compromised past.
The old house at Greenfields stands out in late light of all the seasons of the year, and it stands while the air changes and the soil changes and the weather comes to terms with the efforts to make it more welcome to let it be what it is to release the place from cruelty. (167)
The unnamed characters, the unmarked dialogue, the sometimes-distant narrators ebb and flow, both expanding and condensing the reader’s field of view. The stories that carry a light touch are the most satisfying in this collection, but a few enjoyable pieces end with a clunk; a final comment to drive home the story, which they might have been better without. However, many soar including personal favourites ‘Quid Pro Quo’ and ‘Roaming the Campsite’.
There is a haunted quality to much of this work, and a sense of each story participating in a much larger ecosystem of stories—social, ecological and historical. The stories never forget they were written on land with history; Aboriginal land that was stolen, and the blood that was shed, and the skin of colonisation over a deep past. It’s this sense of place, and of layers of experience in that place, that gives the collection such weight. Each version of place, of time, is unique to the storyteller, each storyteller striving to be heard, and understood.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction and short, creative non-fiction. Her writing has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her manuscript ‘In the Morning I Rise’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.