Storyfire. Swanbourne: Fellowship of Australian Writers WA, 2019. RRP $25.00. 316 pp. ISBN: 9780648430803.
Storyfire is the second anthology of short stories to feature the award winners in the Stuart Hadow Prize, covering the years 2005 – 2018. The administrators of the prize, members of the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA, are to be commended for this publication; for while it’s surely gratifying to win an award, it’s also pleasing for writers to garner some readers. Equally pleasing is a range of narrative perspectives, tones and styles in the anthology. There’s also a mix of traditional and experimental stories, although the anthology is heavily weighted towards the former mode—chronologically sequential narratives that create the effects of verisimilitude. This isn’t a criticism, simply an observation, since there is not a hierarchy of value among different fictional modes.
While it must be said that some stories in the anthology tend to be heavy-handed and clichéd—not all prize-winning stories, after all, are memorable or even well-written—many others respect the reader’s intelligence through the use of inference, symbolism and metaphor. They skillfully negotiate the genre’s competing demands of economy and resonance, brevity and suggestiveness, to create the illusion of a larger world beyond the relatively few words on the page. They also create gaps and silences in characters’ lives to remind us, in the reading, that the whole of anything can never be told; that life is always a contest between the spoken and the silent, the known and the unknown. The overall effect of such strategies is to make readers do some of the work; to be active co-creators of the text. What a gem of a story, then, is Josephine Clarke’s ‘On This Big Farm,’ in which the unexpected presence of a neighbour’s children creates a rising sense of tension and a childless man’s unspoken disappointment and frustration. It’s a subtle and poignant enactment of ideas about masculinity. Another deftly executed realist narrative is Melanie Napthine’s ‘One Time My Sister’. In raising questions about, rather than providing conclusive answers to, the behaviour of the narrator’s sister and her female teacher, the story evokes the potentially sinister ambiguities of selfhood; teacher, sister and narrator remain disturbingly opaque. In contrast to these two realist stories, Rosie Barter’s ‘Not Sweet, Not Sweet At All,’ written in gloriously lavish prose, uses symbolism and allegory to enact the restricted lives of women, and the possibility of rebellion. Meredi Ortega’s ‘David Davis at Coldpigeon Dot Com,’ uses a series of emails to reveal a man’s drive for power, as well as being a witty take on the functions and value of poetry in a digital age. It’s both clever and hilarious. Catherine Deery’s ‘Apples’ uses an elliptical, fragmented structure that gradually coheres to enact a woman’s increasingly bitter dissatisfaction with her life. The story’s tone is spiky, at times darkly humorous, and its trajectory is always unexpected. A similar blend of pathos and acerbic humour informs Vahri McKenzie’s ‘Normal Milk,’ a story about single mother’s fraught relationship with her adolescent daughter. The ending is both a surprise and, reading retrospectively, a logical conclusion to the mother’s harried state of mind. One of the most disturbing stories in the anthology, Jodie Kewley’s ‘Godsend’, uses a digressive structure, reminiscent of the stories of Alice Monroe, to lead us to a shocking conclusion; a crowd at a social gathering remains oblivious to a terrible truth at the heart of family life.
My final choice is the anthology’s final story, Perry Collins’ ‘Happy Landing’. There’s no biography of the writer in the book because details of his identity remain unknown. But what a stunning story it is; written in a hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness mode, and centred on an encounter in an art gallery, ‘Happy Landing’ is a linguistically virtuosic exploration of the nature of identity, art, love and sex, and the meaning of life itself. This wildly associative monologue is in fact carefully controlled, the product of careful thinking about rhythm, syntax and the sounds of words. It’s an exhilarating read, and a joyful note on which to end this engaging anthology.
Storyfire is also a beautifully produced book, lovely to look at and hold; and with thirty-six stories between the covers, it’s excellent value for money. Variously heartbreaking, uplifting, confronting and amusing, the anthology offers something for every reading taste.
Susan Midalia grew up in the Western Australian wheatbelt and has lived in Perth for most of her adult life. She is the author of three collections of short stories, A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars. Her collections have been shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and twice for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. She retired from teaching in 2007 to become a full-time writer and freelance editor. Her first novel, The Art of Persuasion, was released in 2018 by Fremantle Press. Her second novel, provisionally called Everyday Madness, has recently been accepted by Fremantle Press.