Michelle Michau-Crawford, Leaving Elvis. UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP $24.99, 156pp, ISBN 9781742588025
Two things drew me to this collection of short stories. Of course it was the cover, the iconic green dress that speaks about the contents so well. But mainly I was impressed that Michelle’s title story won the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story competition. Most short story writers know this prize and have probably thrown their hats into the ring to no avail, with the many hundreds of other Australian and international hopefuls. In 2013, Michelle won it among 1,200 entries. This is really something to admire and a big achievement.
But I refrained from dashing straight to ‘Leaving Elvis’, the penultimate story in the collection and started reading them in order, as the author intended. This is most important with this collection because a lovely web of connection develops between each story. They become instalments in a family saga, which form a fragmented novel. It’s a structure that works to build a complex portrait of generations and emotional inheritance from one story to the next, with the protagonists returning to tell another tale.
The impact of this is deeper empathy for the suffering of each of character, and there is a lot of suffering. Little details like the mention of TV soapies and other domestic motifs lighten the suffering and fix the stories in their time and place. It would be tempting to be heavy handed with these, but most just fit.
The key tragedy that breaks Evelyn, the matriarch and the most long-lived of the characters, is the death by drowning of her son Petey as a toddler. The damage from this event spreads darkness, invisible and pervasive through the lives of each family member. At its heart, Leaving Elvis is about tragedy.
A child’s death isn’t the only tragedy here. There is the returned servicemen in the early stories and loss of life from the Second World War, most compassionately told through the figure of Len, the flawed father/grandfather who holds the family together but is also key to their destruction. The complexity and ambivalence of his character is compelling and speaks to the complex relationships we often have with family. His alcoholism and neglect lead to ruin for his daughter, Olive, and the death of Petey; his eventual suicide leads to the loss of the new family unit he and Evelyn establish with their granddaughter. But his love draws them all to him.
The young women suffer terribly and, in part, the stories present a tale of double standards and lack of freedom in small town Australia leading to rash behaviour. The two teen pregnancies in the story are treated quite differently but neither end well. It seems that there are no good outcomes when it comes to this, and both lead to more suffering. Something of the Australian Gothic pervades these stories, amplified by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the regional town in which they are set.
There is little to lighten this collection until the end, in the story ‘Can of worms’ which resolves many loose ends and does feel a little constructed for the purpose. The stories are set around a fictional town in the Wheatbelt and this story muddied the setting with a revegetation project, tree-changers and a lone karri tree, which don’t grow in the Wheatbelt. Some of these indicators of change seemed a bit forced and out of keeping with authenticity of place. At least the teen father, Leslie Mulligan, is meted out justice at the jaws of a shark, for his failure to take responsibility. Somehow, ironically, this makes him a hero and the unveiling of his beer-bellied statue is an amusing scene.
A major turning point in the collection is ‘The Light’, perhaps the most spiritual of the stories, which is enhanced by beautiful depiction of a chance encounter with the north coast. The story that shines the brightest is the title story, ‘Leaving Elvis’. In her interview in Amanda Curtin’s blog ‘Looking up/looking down’ Michelle said it took her eight years of work to refine this story and I can see all that time and polish. The characters seem to have a life beyond the page and they develop complexity more akin to a novel than short fiction. Reading to the end of this collection I was compelled to go back and start again to pick up all the nuances and clues I might have missed. This is a good sign from a reader – in fact there are few better signs.
Amanda Curtin, (20 January 2016). ‘2-2-2 Michelle Michau-Crawford talks about Leaving Elvis and Other Stories.’ Retrieved from: https://amandacurtin.com/2016/01/20/2-2-2-michelle-michau-crawford-talks-about-leaving-elvis-and-other-stories/
Donna Mazza was awarded the TAG Hungerford Award for her novel The Albanian, which was published by Fremantle Press in 2007. She is a lecturer at ECU (South West). She won the 2015 Patricia Hackett Prize for publication in Westerly.