Fa­bles of dam­age and fear

In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Sto­ries of Wheat­belt Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Philip Mead

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

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