Size doesn’t count

Love and De­sire

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Sorensen

SHORT story, long short story, novella, what­ever. Ed­i­tor Cate Kennedy’s lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion to this set of four sto­ries gath­ered un­der the ti­tle Love and De­sire tells us that she ‘‘ takes is­sue’’ with claims that short is bet­ter for con­tem­po­rary read­ers with in­creas­ingly short at­ten­tion spans.

The ar­gu­ment im­plies, she says, that the merit of short fiction lies pri­mar­ily in its length. If it’s good and short, it’s even bet­ter than good and long, ac­cord­ing to Kennedy, be­cause ‘‘ with brevity comes the need for enor­mous skill’’.

Th­ese four sto­ries do show skill and it’s good to have works by rel­a­tively un­known writ­ers gath­ered to­gether in a way that al­lows a reader to sam­ple their work. I’m sorry if this sounds ex­actly like what Kennedy finds ir­ri­tat­ing, but it’s true that com­mit­ting to a cof­fee and chat with a new ac­quain­tance is a lot more sen­si­ble than tak­ing them home for a whole week­end.

Christo­pher Cur­rie’s open­ing story, Dearly De­parted , set in Bris­bane, is about first love and com­mit­ment, a learn­ing nar­ra­tive told from the point of view of a nice young man with a po­etic soul. It sounds a lit­tle for­mu­laic, pos­si­bly be­cause there has been a healthy spate of com­ing- of- age friend­ship sto­ries pro­duced by Bris­bane’s young writer set of late.

There’s the req­ui­site nicely de­scribed ur­ban­scapes, daggy mo­ments that the nar­ra­tor must nav­i­gate, and di­a­logue- driven char­ac­ter analy­ses that al­low the nar­ra­tor to re­veal his per­cep­tion and sense of hu­mour.

This is a sweet story but prob­a­bly will be best re­ceived by read­ers the same age — mid- 20s — as the writer.

Ellen Rodger’s The Girls’ Room is also part of a spate; in this case a spate of fic­tion­alised sex­u­ally ex­plicit sto­ries told from the point of view of the sex worker. More than many first­per­son nar­ra­tives, th­ese kinds of sto­ries tempt the reader to hear them as con­fes­sional be­cause the de­tails can seem so or­di­nary yet voyeuris­tic. Rodger is a clever writer and she is ca­pa­ble of sur­pris­ing im­agery. But there’s a hol­low­ness at the cen­tre of this story right where the heart should be. An at­tempt to turn this sad de­scrip­tion of brothel life into a love story is valiant but un­suc­cess­ful.

Paddy Reilly’s Deep Wa­ter comes clos­est to what Kennedy says she looks for in novel­lalength fiction: sure- footed econ­omy that never sounds rushed, beau­ti­fully paced as it builds its por­trait of a 1960s bog- Ir­ish fam­ily liv­ing in sub­ur­ban Aus­tralia. Reilly se­lects scenes with de­lec­ta­ble pre­ci­sion. It’s high praise, but her tech­nique is rem­i­nis­cent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird , where the young nar­ra­tor’s un­der­stand­ing runs apace with our own, cre­at­ing a shared ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the sad­ness and small hopes in or­di­nary lives.

Reilly flirts a lit­tle with the stick­i­ness of lar­rikin nos­tal­gia: the fam­ily of kids left to fend for them­selves when mother dies and fa­ther is not quite re­li­able. But it all feels and sounds real, flesh and blood, not card­board cut- outs.

The last story is the one that won the novella com­pe­ti­tion run by lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Mean­jin and, iron­i­cally, it’s prob­a­bly the one story in the col­lec­tion that left me with the im­pres­sion that it should have been a longer work, maybe novel length.

Mar­garet Innes’s China be­gins su­perbly with an evoca­tive de­scrip­tion of a mother and daugh­ter go­ing off to town to put a fine china din­ner set on lay- by. ( Like Reilly’s story, this takes us back to a seem­ingly sim­pler but emo­tion­ally more clan­des­tine era.)

A great deal hap­pens in this story and it cov­ers a vast dis­tance from the del­i­cate love de­scribed in the first scenes to an al­most un­bear­ably touch­ing mo­ment at the end.

Some of the ideas, some of the in­sights into peo­ple’s mo­ti­va­tions, cry out for de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly the por­trait of the nar­ra­tor’s mother, which tan­ta­lises but, in the end, is frus­trat­ingly un­der- ex­plored.

To use that new friends metaphor once more, a book such as this is like a wellor­gan­ised din­ner party rather than the slightly noisy gath­er­ing that can form within a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries by dif­fer­ent writ­ers. Each guest at this par­tic­u­lar party serves up their course with skill and flavour. But I did want to ask that last con­trib­u­tor to linger a lit­tle longer.

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