Hickey, Margaret. Rural Dreams. Adelaide: MidnightSun Publishing, 2020. RRP $24.99, 240pp, ISBN: 9781925227680.
Much of Margaret Hickey’s collection of short stories, Rural Dreams, reads as if life itself. There’s an authentic simplicity to the writing, the characters and the settings that really makes these tales jump from the page.
Admittedly Rural Dreams isn’t a long read, but there’s a lot packed into every story. Hickey is economical in her use of language, but her words are so carefully chosen that she manages to say in a simple sentence what some writers would take pages to, as we will see.
The stories in this collection are an eclectic mix that weave together and even cross over. The rural community they conjure doesn’t pander to stereotype or exaggeration. The opening story, ‘Saturday Morning’, is simple in its premise. A young man, now living in the city, drives three hours there and back to his hometown every Saturday, so that he can still play for his local football team. It’s the epitome of knowing you’re from a small community, that sense that when you go back everything will be exactly as it was—including you. Hickey captures the beauty of this character’s journey in just a few clear images:
And there it comes, that big ball of a sun, that big ball of orange rising up over the horizon. It jolts him every time. Rays light up the stone fences, hit the trees and illuminate the paddocks. The old gums shimmer green and grey in the early morning light and the world appears golden quiet. It’s like it is every Saturday, a new era. (17)
Often, going home, back to our roots, is seen as a regression, a step away from the ‘development’ associated with urban surroundings. But here, this young man is reborn, week after week, as he reencounters himself in his hometown.
On the flip side, Hickey shows us the tensions between those who choose to embrace their rural upbringing and stay in their community, and those who decide to move on and pursue their dreams elsewhere. In ‘Glory Days’, Rob, just about to finish high school, meets a Sydney playwright at a family gathering. Though Rob is a little starstruck, the rest of the family aren’t so impressed:
‘Peter? A playwright!’ His father says. ‘That’s a good one. Remember that play we saw of his in the Chaff house, out the back of Denny’s?’
‘Oh yes!’ His mother recalls. ‘That was a nice evening.’
‘Critics write about him,’ Rob says. ‘He must be good.’
‘Critics!’ His father nearly chokes with laughter. (30)
In just a few lines we see the juxtaposition between those who leave and those who stay. The ones who remain are scathing of the ones who don’t, and perhaps a little ignorant of the wider world too.
‘Precipice’ is the standout story in this collection. It’s part-thriller, part-drama, but with some subtly searing comments about how dangerous it is to exist as a woman. In it, three women are on a hiking trail as part of an initiative to help lawyers and other officials better understand victims of domestic violence. Though the story is sharp and heart-stopping in places—such as when the women are stopped by a strange man—it’s passages like this one where the real gems lie:
The man was right about one thing—the track became harder to navigate as they continued. Recent rains meant the track was spread wide and thin—at times veering off the side of the mountain to the steep sides. The women tread carefully, eyes down, the joy of the walk diminished. (131)
In this way, the story is laden with metaphors for the dangers women face navigating day-to-day existence. In the quoted paragraph, the track being ‘harder to navigate’, the risk of the ‘steep sides’ and the ‘diminished’ enjoyment of the walk all throb with danger, even before any overt violence or intimidation has occurred.
Rural Dreams is an engaging, intelligent and intimate collection that digs deeply into life, both individual and collective, within rural communities. There’s a beauty in these stories that feels reminiscent of fairy tales—not all with happy endings—but all leaving you feeling like you’ve understood something of what it is to be human.
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. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.