Murphy, Rashida. The Bonesetter’s Fee and other stories. Sydney: Spineless Wonders Publishing, 2021. RRP: $24.99, 100pp, ISBN: 9781925052725.
As I was reading Rashida Murphy’s collection The Bonesetter’s Fee and other stories I was struck by a sudden urge to hold those close to me. To call my husband, mother, father, sister and brother, to find my voice and tell them I loved them. Was I like the older sister in the story ‘The Boys’, physically there but preoccupied and unaware of my siblings’ lives? Did my grandmother also see us as small shadows, as in the story ‘See’, placed before her every few years and feeling the ‘weight of a fractious life’ (22) with each coming and going? How many Aslam’s had I met, unbothered to ask real questions, offer help or simply listen about matters I took for granted?
This is what Murphy has so craftfully done in this collection: written short stories that ask us to examine our perceptions and prejudices, and most importantly to pay attention to life. Whether it be to realise that the garden has overgrown with ‘geranium, honey suckle and crab apple’ (75), to tell the difference between a Qum silk, Balouch, Bijar and Tabriz, to remember the ‘smell of white cotton and rose petals’ (17), or to pick out the taste of mustard seeds from red chillies, green leaves, lemony stalks and roasted coconut. Or to simply notice the lightness in someone from wearing a ‘comfy pair of shoes’ (67), to recognise the strength in both staying and leaving despite having a heart ‘crack and shatter’ (16), or to see the faint shadow behind someone’s eyes that may be hiding ‘moons in Jupiter and suns in Saturn’ (27).
The collection begins with the titular story, ‘The Bonesetter’s Fee’, where we are placed on a slippery afternoon with a girl having to require the assistance of a Bonesetter whose ‘Fingers slip when holding hands, hands slip when pulling at bones’ (1). These words alone conjure so many questions: how does one set a bone? And, what does a ‘Bonesetter’ do? Murphy uses the story as a platform to explore deeper ideas of a girl’s worth and notions of her body—her body is ‘trouble’ or ‘inconvenient’ when it juts into the world and makes its ‘unwelcome presence’ felt by those around, but is ‘impressive’ when it can hide and bury its fears, so others are not burdened (2).
Similarly, Murphy uses other stories in this collection to give space to voices otherwise not usually heard. The stories ‘For the Love of Fidel’ and ‘When the Sky Breaks’ speak of the real lives behind a name in a world that is quick to judge and assume based on fragments of information. ‘Sholeh’ tells the story of a ‘Middle-Eastern woman living in a post 9/11 world’ (49) and ‘Talking Beasts’ talks of countless sacrifices made to stay in the ‘lucky country’ (88).
However, the central thread through each story in the collection is the relationships that define our lives. From the communities cobbled together over shared ‘soft rotis and watery red curries’ (41) or ‘yoghurt and harissa with chickpeas’ (72) in ‘Bandits in the Garden’ and ‘Death Lilies’, to those relationships which are our most intimate. Each story touches on how people are drawn together by shared circumstances; whether it be the bread and chips shared between mother and daughter whilst listening to ‘the Smashing Pumpkins sing about the resolute urgency of now’ (62), the secrets kept between siblings even if it means that sisters have to half-carry, half-walk their ‘brother home each night, propped up’ between them (10), and the simple dreams of a first love to ‘marry and live in a house with modern furniture and a gas stove’ (33).
This is a collection as much about life as it is about how we pick up the pieces and continue to move forwards. How we search for moments of stillness, savour the acts of small kindnesses and rejoice in moments of joy. Murphy reminds us that we each experience love, loss and happiness in the same way, in stories that take us across time and place through a tapestry of lives, which each offer a unique perspective on the human experience, and what it means to live and have lived.
Priya Kahlon is a poet and performer who currently finds herself a long way from her hometown of Boorloo / Perth, Australia in the dazzling lights of Tokyo, Japan. She writes to better understand the world and our place in it. Her recent work has been featured in Westerly, Australian Poetry Journal and Portside Review.