Manning, Melissa. Smokehouse. University of Queensland Press, 2021.
Melissa Manning’s debut short story collection Smokehouse is pervaded by a sense of personal loss: of parents, children, marriages, property, individual identity and a rational mind. Set in Tasmania, its nine realist stories are also linked by recurring characters and the central metaphor of smoke, represented as cremation, housefire, drugs, cooking and the smokehouse built by one of its central characters, a German immigrant called Ollie. While these sorrowful, tender and carefully crafted stories sometimes place individual loss in the context of wider social catastrophes, including the devastation of the Japanese tsunami and the collapse of the Westgate Bridge, their focus is on the absences—emotional, psychological, existential—that mark the daily lives of the characters.
This note of dissatisfaction is sounded early in the opening story, ‘Smokehouse Part One’, in which the collection’s other central character Nora, the mother of two young daughters, reflects on the unravelling of her marriage: ‘She had never expected to feel so absent, as though her identity had bled out into the fabric of her family’ (8). Having moved with that family from Melbourne, hoping to rediscover ‘the margins of herself’ in a tree change lifestyle, Nora’s rescue comes in the form of Ollie—an experience she later recognises as the narrative of many women’s lives: leaving a man for another man. While the speed with which Nora enters a passionate relationship with Ollie is unconvincing, the relatively longer space of this story allows for a more gradual unfolding of her love and a growing sense of self-belief. It’s a shock, then—one that’s strategically, cleverly placed at the end of the collection—to encounter the story ‘Smokehouse Part Two’, in which Ollie, fifteen years later, has succumbed to the ravages and indignities of dementia. As with ‘Smokehouse Part One’, this concluding story is narrated from Nora’s perspective, and it reveals her ambivalent responses as Ollie’s carer: grief, frustration, exhaustion, fear, compassion, shame and disgust at his loss of bodily control, as she tries desperately to remember the man she loves and the joys that bound them together. It’s a painfully honest and deeply moving enactment of a distressing human experience; those who have lived it will share the belief that ‘we read to know that we are not alone’1.
In between ‘Smokehouse’ parts one and two are seven much shorter stories about a cast of other characters who inhabit the communities of Kettering and Bruny Island. The story ‘Boy’ is a marvel of compression; a mere seven pages, it reveals the moral complexity and anguished vacillations of a father who lacks both the courage and self-respect to attend a court hearing to gain access to his son. The story ‘Leaven’ offers descriptions of an extended tract of time—Ollie’s German childhood, his overseas travels, his final destination of Tasmania—which also convincingly chart his psychological and moral development. The lonely, self-isolating character of the stonemason Walde in the story ‘Stone’ finds consolation in the affection of his chickens and in the solitude of his work:
He made a point of leaving something of himself behind—a sliver of hangnail, a whisker, sometimes a piece of rolled-up snot […] It was some kind of continuity, a way of being a part of [the stones] as much as they were a part of him. (216)
Here, as throughout the collection, Manning has a keen eye for a striking or unusual detail which provides arresting glimpses of characters’ inner lives. Other stories are similarly evocative, and often heartbreaking: a daughter’s drug addiction, the shockingly unexpected death of a gay man’s partner, and the deaths of a Japanese girl’s natal family and her adopted mother.
Counterpointing this sadness are affirmations of friendship, the beauties of the natural world, the capacity of individuals for resilience, the pleasures of cooking and eating and the aesthetic pleasures offered by the stories themselves. As with the best short stories, the narratives in Smokehouse skilfully combine brevity and depth to, in this case, create sympathy for its often lost or abandoned characters. Manning’s language is typically unadorned but emotionally incisive. Shifting time frames are deftly handled and are used to reveal the enduring influence of the past on the present, or to reinforce a character’s sense of being adrift. The story ‘Chainsaw’, for example, is structured as a series of contrasts between a young daughter’s playful, innocent childhood and the confronting realities of her adolescent drug addiction. The story also evokes, with a poignant succinctness characteristic of the collection, the mother’s response to her daughter’s death: ‘her mind addled and limbs shaky and weak […] [she experiences her life as] a penance with no clear notion of a focal point, without any reason to atone’ (130).
While individual stories are engaging and often haunting, Smokehouse is less satisfying as a collection of interlinked stories. Some relationships tend to be stated rather than imaginatively realised. It comes as a surprise, for example, to learn that Nora has developed a close friendship with Sally after a year of living in Kettering. Other friendships feel sketched in, represented through predictable references to sharing meals and getting drunk. It should also be said that in a collection about absence, what is missing is the shadow of colonial violence at the heart of Tasmania’s history which continues to shape its present. The characters in Smokehouse remain oblivious to this history, while their experience of the natural environment is similarly depoliticised, indeed romanticised, represented as a means of finding personal fulfillment through a sensual connection with the land. The rendering of manual labour is also ideologically problematic, inclined to naturalise white ownership of the land. This is not to argue that Smokehouse should have been a different kind of book. Rather, it’s to suggest that a recognition of Indigenous dispossession would have enhanced its already impressive thematic and affective power. The politics of Smokehouse, and one of its greatest gifts, resides instead in the exploration of the power dynamics within marriages, families and sexual relationships, in which experiences of grief, abandonment, regret and longing are made to seem vividly real.
1. This belief is attributed as phrased to C.S. Lewis in William Nicholson’s Shadowlands (1985), which appeared first as a television film and was adapted for stage in 1989.
Susan Midalia is the author of three short story collections, all shortlisted for major Australian literary awards, and two novels. Her latest work, a collection of flash fiction, Miniatures, was published by Night Parrot Press in July 2022. She is the current Prose Editor of Westerly, and also works as a freelance fiction editor, mentor to emerging writers and a judge of literary competitions. She has a PhD in contemporary Australian women’s fiction, and has published on the subject in national and international literary journals.