Fables of damage and fear
In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Stories of Wheatbelt Australia
By John Kinsella Swallow Press, 190pp, $39.95 (HB) Distributed in Australia by Inbooks
JOHN Kinsella is not one of those poets who specialises in lyric uplift. He’s always a worldly writer, animated by the infinite contradictions of life and language. His head is also full of the heritage poetic traditions. He has re-grounded Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia as five anti-pastoral drives from Perth out into the country, and teleported Dante’s medieval epic to the edge of the wheatbelt town of York, in his book-length poem, Divine Comedy.
Here we have a collection of short fictions all set in Kinsella territory, the West Australian wheatbelt. They track from north to south, from coastal sandplains to barely sustainable farms on the edge of the goldfields. On the horizon are the dune landscapes.
Each story is identified, on the contents page, with towns such as Toodyay, Dalwallinu, Koorda, but the stories themselves don’t mention their towns by name. The stories are all about ‘‘ damage and its implications’’ — environmental and human damage. They make up a kind of narrative ecology in which the lives of the wheatbelt people and country exist symbiotically.
The stories owe something to Sherwood Anderson’s early 20th-century mosaic of short fiction about Winesburg, Ohio and also to Henry Lawson’s reticent fictions of settler life on the other side of the continent. In his preface, Kinsella characterises his stories as ‘‘ glimpses’’, narrative fragments that occasionally extend into tales. The narrators vary, men or women, either knowing or unreliable. They often betray the peculiar irony of the Australian yarner: how exactly is this storyteller implicated in his or her story?
Kinsella’s stories differ from those of Anderson and Lawson in their occasional fantastical and fable-like qualities. In The House near the Cemetery, a young couple on a bad acid trip have a vision of an inferno-like underworld beneath an abandoned, haunted house. In The Donation one of Toodyay’s hippies, Isis, fails to understand the rules of community support. The Cartesian Diver (Westonia) is a miniature retelling of Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline.
Typically these are stories about the calculus of tensions between communities and individuals. There is menace, prejudice, fear, madness, but never from the expected quarters and never according to the cliches about life in the country. Each of these stories makes you wonder what exactly a human collective is. For