Lives weighted down by things left un­said

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kalinda Ash­ton

JESS Huon’s ac­com­plished and of­ten el­e­gant de­but col­lec­tion of short fic­tion joins a spate of im­pres­sive re­cent publi­ca­tions of linked short sto­ries or ‘‘ nov­els in sto­ries’’. While linked sto­ries per­haps have a stronger place in Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing — think of Jen­nifer Egan’s glo­ri­ously orig­i­nal A Visit From the Goon Squad — the form is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­vival in Australia.

Steven Am­s­ter­dam’s re­cent What the Fam­ily Needed fol­lowed an­other linked col­lec­tion, Things We Didn’t See Com­ing; Pa­trick Cullen’s What Came Be­tween and Gretchen Shirm’s Hav­ing Cried Wolf are story col­lec­tions strung to­gether by re­cur­ring char­ac­ters and place; even Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s multi­nar­ra­tor best­seller The Slap could be seen as a novel in sto­ries.

Huon’s ter­rain

in per­plex­ing, some­times paralysing, fre­quently defin­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally self-an­ni­hi­lat­ing na­ture of de­sire. Her sto­ries have an ex­pan­sive scope: from bored teenagers smok­ing bongs and tag­ging streets in sub­ur­ban Melbourne to swel­ter­ing Dar­win, a San Fran­cisco bereft of the dis­si­dent counter cul­ture, and an In­dia at­trac­tive to and repellent of its Western vis­i­tors be­cause of its un­will­ing­ness to ‘‘ feign con­trol’’.

Long­ing, be­long­ing, ex­ile, re­turn, in­ti­macy and loss per­me­ate these sto­ries, in the en­meshed, haunt­ing re­la­tion­ships we form in late child­hood and early ado­les­cence, in be­sot­ted sex­ual lust, and in the ob­ses­sive, re­lent­less pur­suit of re­li­gious rap­ture and re­lease.

Huon fol­lows three nar­ra­tive strands: the child­hood and ado­les­cent en­tan­gle­ment of Jed, Danny and Alex, who grew up in the same suf­fo­cat­ing sub­urb and are marked by the residue of vi­o­lence, loss and doubt. The un­usual, com­pelling ‘‘ ro­mance’’ of Oliver, a nom­i­nally gay man who tries to re­cover him­self in the wake of malaise, drugs and ago­ra­pho­bia, and Is­abelle, his friend since child­hood and some­times lover, who aban­dons a life of good grades, school pre­fec­ture and dis­ori­ented promis­cu­ity for the prom­ise of a rein­ven­tion in In­dia. And last a pro­tag­o­nist seem­ingly on the verge of a ner­vous break­down whose fren­zied, al­most un­hinged de­sire for trans­for­ma­tion and truth sees her seek­ing respite in born-again move­ments, Chris­tian ashrams, Bud­dhist monas-

The Dark Wet

is

the teries, Hindu friezes, and, even­tu­ally, a man, a spir­i­tual guru of sorts.

Of the three, Is­abelle and Oliver’s story held my at­ten­tion most. Huon’s writ­ing can be lush and beau­ti­ful, par­tic­u­larly in the stand­out story Head­first , where a for­lorn, frank and in­creas­ingly des­per­ate se­ries of unsent post­cards to Oliver re­veals the en­dur­ing hold of child­hood and ado­les­cent in­ti­macy and ex­plores the pain and long­ing of its lost con­nec­tion. Some of the ex­changes be­tween the cou­ple, while el­lip­ti­cal and heavy with things left un­said, are ex­tremely poignant.

These vi­gnettes also dis­play Huon’s ca­pac­ity to de­pict the por­ous, un­sta­ble con­structed and con­strict­ing na­ture of gen­der iden­tity, love and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion: Oliver’s shape shift­ing; Is­abelle’s dis­com­fort try­ing on a dress be­long­ing to her mother, who has left the fam­ily, her strapped-down breasts as a teenage gym­nast and later shorn hair, her en­coun­ters with cross-dress­ing and trans­gen­derism as re­li­gious duty, eco­nomic ne­ces­sity or so­cial role in In­dia, and a ten­der scene in which a gay man and a les­bian un­ex­pect­edly be­come lovers.

That said, Is­abelle’s jour­ney to In­dia veers into cliche (the beg­gars, street sellers, tem­ples, mar­kets, rick­shaws, cheap ho­tels, mosquito nets, turmeric and co­conut drinks) and I felt un­easy at times about the ex­tent to which the coun­try is rep­re­sented as an ex­otic, sprawl­ing, tough-love cure for Western un­hap­pi­ness.

To give Huon credit, this Eat, Pray Love ap­proach is complicated by a darker and more nu­anced ren­der­ing in the third sec­tion of the book where we en­counter fully formed lo­cal char­ac­ters and a na­tion di­vided by its am­bigu­ous re­la­tion­ship with the global econ­omy, its caste and class sep­a­ra­tions, its con­tra­dic­tions and the pen­e­trat­ing mazes of tra­di­tion, bu­reau­cracy, spir­i­tu­al­ity, rit­ual and home. These later scenes refuse to con­form to hack­neyed con­cep­tions of spir­i­tual tran­scen­dence and the fetishi­sa­tion of sim­plic­ity, open­ness and au­then­tic­ity in Asia.

Although this final sec­tion is evoca­tive and in­trigu­ing, it was marred for me by per­sis­tent con­fu­sion about the or­der of events and nar­ra­tive struc­ture. The slip­pages be­tween the nar­ra­tor’s pur­suit of be­com­ing a nun, cri­tiquing the ser­mons in a Chris­tian ashram and aban­don­ing her Bud­dhist vo­ca­tion may have been in­ten­tional but they also left me dis­ori­ented — though not as dis­ori­ented as the pro­tag­o­nist.

Huon’s writ­ing is pow­er­ful (a punching bag is ‘‘ a huge red swollen lung’’), touch­ing (‘‘I’m up close, with an un­owned hunger, hurtling un­seen through the night, like bul­lets fired by masked men’’) and funny (‘‘of­fer­ing my body to Je­sus, I thought as a 16-year-old, would be like say­ing, ‘ Here, Je­sus, take this, I’m not sure what to do with it’ ’’). I sus­pect readers who have an affin­ity with spir­i­tu­al­ity more gen­er­ally and East­ern re­li­gion in par­tic­u­lar may find more lay­ers of mean­ing that speak to them in this promis­ing, tal­ented but un­even col­lec­tion. Kalinda Ash­ton is a fic­tion writer and lec­turer at Flin­ders Univer­sity in Ade­laide.

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