Patrić, A.S. The Butcherbird Stories. Sydney: Transit Lounge, 2018. RRP $29.99. 256pp. ISBN: 9781925760101
The familiar idiom, ‘the devil is in the detail’, has never been more apt than in the eleven short stories that make up A.S. Patrić’s new collection, The Butcherbird Stories.
In this compilation, Patrić offers stories that are rich in language and location, with settings ranging from the banks of the Danube to St Kilda, a jungle to a swimming pool. There is certainly no lack of variety and each place is made a nucleus from which the plot emerges, every aspect described in vibrant, precise detail that immediately draws the reader into the world that is in focus.
These locals are given their own unique beauty, from the dark quietness of a family home in ‘Dead Sun’, to the pressing, fierce heat in ‘Butcherbird’. Even the swimming pool setting of ‘Avulsion’ has its own loveliness, ‘Sunlight through the high windows lasts past eight in the evening’ (13)’ and the pool is, ‘flat and calm and blue, unbroken except where there are a few swimmers in lanes on the other side’ (15).
But this is where the beauty ends. Beneath these places of seeming safe and calm—a taxi in a deluge of rain, houses, workplaces—lies an undercurrent of violence and threat. Characters bring with them the dark dangerousness of humanity as they move within these spheres.
The majority of these eleven stories are told from a male perspective, each of these displaying an arrogance and sense of privilege. Relationships are fraught and tense and unsettling, even the father/daughter relationship of ‘Butcherbird’ is not as sweetly gentle as would be expected. The father, frustrated by the heat, shouts, swearing at a magpie trying to take his daughter’s cookie, ‘“I’m sorry for swearing,” he tells his daughter. “It’s the heat that’s making Daddy angry.”’ (43). His arrogance and dominance appear again, further into the story, when he takes a dip in the hotel pool and finds himself in the company of a young girl. He becomes a voyeur of her body despite being aware of her youth, ‘She is wearing a white bikini. Maybe fourteen but she has developed quickly—a rush into raw beauty. Braces on her teeth give her age away, as does the tilt of her head when she smiles’ (48).
He perceives her to be ‘Play-acting with her new body the same as a wondrous new dress—with a safe man she’s seen around the resort, a husband and the father of a child…a body in bloom offered to his gaze’ (49-50). There lies the arrogance and the threat, that this man can hide behind his roles as husband and father, observing the girl’s evening swim as an offering to him of her body. To him, her actions are for him and not for herself, drawing out questions of male privilege and female subservience.
Although the threat of violence is prevalent in a number of these stories, there are few instances where that violence becomes reality. In ‘Memories of Jane Doe’, a St Kilda chef picks up a traveller, offering her a room at his place and a job at his restaurant. He becomes increasingly possessive, though they are not in a relationship, and begins to see her as his property. When he finds her cutting and dying her hair, ‘He pulled her away from the basin, and stared at her with her hacked hair, as if he’d caught her in the act of suicide. Yelling at her.’ (137) She, ‘Jane Doe’, isn’t named until the very end, by a young boy who has stolen her guitar from her murdered body. There are questions of male ownership that rise from this tale, the power balance between male and female made glaringly uneven. The other female character in this story victim-blames,
“That type of girl lives dangerously, doesn’t she…Girls like that go out into the woods and think all the wolves will be puppy dogs, because her smile is sweet and she can sing for them … There was no protecting her from her own fairytale.” (156)
In ‘The Flood’, a taxi driver picks up an old man – another symbol of vulnerability – who opens up to him.
He had found that passengers might offer a story from their life because the separation and anonymity of a taxi were as intimate to them as a confessional. Mostly they bored him. Occasionally Koshade was interested enough to play along, as though he could offer anyone absolution for anything. (223)
The driver places himself in the position of a priest, the channel through which God forgives and offers absolution. His arrogance sees him thwart the old man’s attempt at suicide, pulling him from the waters despite his protests.
The Butcherbird Stories brings both beauty and violence together in eleven dextrously woven stories. There is little doubting Patrić’s skill as a storyteller, but his self-assuredness is perhaps a little too domineering to make this entirely enjoyable. These stories have hidden in them real gems, but the continued sense of arrogance that emerges from the characters and sometimes from the writing itself, holds it just under being a smart and considerate exploration of the gender divide, the power of place and ideals of masculinity and leaves it feeling unsettlingly self-indulgent.
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. Previously Arts and Events Editor of Scoop Events, she now works in the marketing team at Fremantle Press.