Size doesn’t count
Love and Desire
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.