Mihaela Nicolescu and Nadine Browne. The Whip Hand. 2016. Fremantle Press. RRP:$27.99, 235pp. ISBN: 9781925164152
The Whip Hand is a short-story collection written by debut authors Mihaela Nicolescu and Nadine Brown and is divided into two lots of nine short-stories: Mihaela Nicolescu’s bundled under the title of ‘The Returning’, Nadine Brown’s ‘Playing Dead’. Both writers live in Western Australia, which is presumably why the stories have been coupled. Yet despite these elements of symmetry, the works are quite distinct in style and subject matter.
There’s a robust and well established tendency in literature for writers to turn over endless strings of pained metaphors and grasping allusions in their stories; dancing around with the form and occasionally tripping up while the reader sits there rolling their eyes, wondering when they might get an opportunity to cut in and engage with the story. Therefore when a writer gets down to business straight away it’s refreshing. It’s also nice when they have a great sense of humour. Mihaela Nicolescu exhibits both these qualities in her collection of stories which are, in the main, highly enjoyable.
The opening story was an odd one to start with I felt. ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’—an economically written story about a strained relationship between a young woman, her child and her mother—while having a small but clarifying dose of social realism, had some issues with transition and I don’t know that it was the strongest piece.
The second story ‘866’—written in first-person in the fractured English of a recently arrived refugee—might have become an earnest and/or politically sensitive horror story but instead it is hilariously blunt, avoiding twee temptations along the journey.
In ‘Fig’, Nicolescu shows that her ability to write a genuinely funny story was no one-off and that she has a great facility for comedic writing. The story is cleverly plotted and integrated and involves a Russian witch tenant, an office Lothario, a cat-cum-cushion covering, a vagina, a fig and a hearty cake stomping.
To suggest that is Nicolescu’s strength as a writer would be to undersell her. ‘Frozen’, a story centred around young children holidaying with their parents on the island of Grundvik (near Sweden), has— despite the increasingly dark subject matter—a great lightness, naturalism and clarity to it.
The writing—efficient without being clipped—delivers some very astute observations, lovely allusions and turns of phrase. In the story ‘Love’ a 10 year-old narrator returns to Romania and there discovers a side of her father—just from a fleeting facial expression—that she’d never imagined existed. A life of emotion and passion that existed outside of his family.
Occasionally there are small issues, like a sense of appropriate emotional dosage. For example, in ‘The Impressionist’, a newly introduced character has a fit of pique with someone she has recently met that is not commensurate to the situation. Another small issue was the unnecessary late reveal of one characters relation to the narrator in ‘Strays’, which was not central to the unfolding of the story and a little distracting. Overall, however, the stories were nicely constructed in terms of tone and event.
That Nadine Brown grounds her stories is indisputable. We always know where we are and early on in the stories. The quasi-rural and suburban landscapes of Western Australia make their appearance in several stories and seemingly as locales in others despite not being named. By and large the subjects of the stories are down and out, affected negatively in some way by drugs or alcohol, which feature in six of the nine stories.
Potentially the suburban and rural terrain might have serviced the stories and inserted themselves into the tone—as monstrously ominous or suffocating backdrops—impacting the mood of the story or dwarfing and shaping the characters like a Russell Drysdale painting. Instead they function there as touchstones rather than as an integrated element of the story.
The characters themselves, despite their significant struggles, I found at times hard to emotionally engage with. This might be a function of not having sufficient space to properly build empathy for characters but there is occasionally an element of overly expositional writing: of running through some familiar iterations—the stripper who has father and drug issues, the drug addict who can’t parent properly. Their stories might be sad, like death is always sad, but it’s only really sad to people whom we care for. Without establishing an emotional connection to character we can arrive at moments in the story which are objectively sad or awful, but strike us with all the emotional impact of a news report. To expect people to empathise with strangers is to ask a lot in a world saturated with horror.
The most successful of the stories is ‘Drowning’, which acts like a palate cleanser. Here we meet Jessica who feels harried by her evangelical, Christian preacher husband Paul who crowds out her time with endless and tedious proselytising activities. Her silent acts of rebellion, like wearing red shoes and lipstick to church, are subtle and effective touches. The arrival at the church of two local gays breaks through to Jessica like a promise, the end of tedium. The story ends nicely with Jessica telling her priggish and gestural husband that she doesn’t believe in God, or him.
‘Spiral’ returns to more sombre tones and themes of defeat; outlining a son’s difficulty with an alcoholic father and the strains that puts on his relationship with his partner who is the narrator. There is some sympathy here, possible explanations for his behaviour, but it doesn’t collapse into mawkish sentimentality.
Brown’s story ideas are promising and sound but at times she makes unusual tonal choices or introduces plot elements that can undermine the stories. The story ‘The Jerry Can’, which runs through a manic-depressive woman’s observations of her damaged neighbours—an obese woman and meth addicted—starts with a comedic tone washing through it but ends in tragedy. In terms of plot, the wife who flees her violent husband in ‘Playing Dead’ has a very dubious economic plan that is not necessary for the story to work. Overall the stories had solid foundations but greater attention or space might have been given to develop empathy with the characters.
David Latham is the Editor at In Review where he also writes occasional reviews. David has also written for The Guardian, Vice, ABR, Crikey and has recently optioned a television series.