Prom­ise of things fore­told

We are Not the Same Any­more: Sto­ries Let­ters to the End of Love

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley

By Chris Somerville UQP, 264pp, $19.95 By Yvette Walker UQP, 252pp, $22.95

OTHER than their pub­lisher, the two first-time au­thors un­der re­view do not have much in com­mon. Chris Somerville’s sto­ries in We are Not the Same Any­more are writ­ten in a clas­si­cally minimalist style, in which con­crete de­tails are re­ported in clipped declar­a­tive sen­tences and deeper mean­ings are buried and im­plicit. Yvette Walker’s epis­to­lary novel Let­ters to the End of Love, by con­trast, is openly ex­pres­sive: its in­ti­ma­cies are con­fessed rather than im­plied, and its ro­man­tic sub­ject mat­ter is re­flected in its richly metaphor­i­cal and, at times, nakedly sen­ti­men­tal prose.

They are ge­o­graph­i­cally po­larised too: Somerville was born in Tas­ma­nia and lives in Bris­bane; Walker was born in Melbourne and lives in Perth. What can be said of both au­thors, how­ever, is they have writ­ten works of great prom­ise, and are still a lit­tle green. On the face of of it, Walker’s novel would seem to be the more con­spic­u­ously flawed of the two, its height­ened style oc­ca­sion­ally spilling over into in­stances of over­writ­ing and even the odd sole­cism. Yet Let­ters to the End of Love ul­ti­mately proves to be the more am­bi­tious and orig­i­nal work.

There is a sense in which many of Somerville’s sto­ries in this col­lec­tion are no such thing. They are pared back to es­sen­tials, to the point where sev­eral are bet­ter char­ac­terised as sketches or vi­gnettes. Even the longer in­clu­sions that al­low a chrono­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive to un­fold — sto­ries such as Snow on the Moun­tain, Para­chute and Ath­let­ics — seem to have more in­ter­est in the jux­ta­po­si­tion of events than in causal­ity. This ten­dency is their most in­ter­est­ing fea­ture. Though they have an affin­ity with re­al­ist short story tra­di­tion, they es­chew mo­ments of epiphany, which have be­come a tired cliche of the genre, pre­fer­ring to cre­ate their ef­fects by al­low­ing dis­con­nected mo­ments to res­onate with each other.

The open­ing story, Earth­quake, is a good ex­am­ple of Somerville’s sense of the es­sen­tial. Barely five pages long, it de­scribes the nar­ra­tor and his sis­ter help­ing their dotty fa­ther dis­trib­ute fly­ers about a miss­ing dog. It works as a mildly com­i­cal char­ac­ter sketch but hints at a deeper tur­bu­lence within the fam­ily via the nar­ra­tor’s mem­ory of an earth­quake they ex­pe­ri­enced while on a trip to Cal­i­for­nia. It is nei­ther as light nor as slight as it first ap­pears.

The coolly ob­ser­va­tional tone of Somerville’s prose can some­times give his fic­tion an air of al­most ex­is­ten­tial blank­ness, a sense that no event or de­tail means more than any other and that their col­lec­tive mean­ing re­mains un­cer­tain. In­deed the cli­max of Para­chute — an­other story that fea­tures the pur­suit of a miss­ing dog — in­volves some gun­play on a beach that could eas­ily be in­ter­preted as a re­work­ing of the fa­mous cen­tral scene in Ca­mus’s L’Etranger. Frus­trated at the fail­ure of their search, one of the two prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters shoots blindly into the waves in a sym­bolic ges­ture of fu­til­ity, be­fore the nar­ra­tor turns the weapon on a nearby sign, at­tack­ing the idea of mean­ing it­self. The story’s fi­nal mo­ment is rich in its am­bi­gu­ity.

The fic­tions in We are Not the Same Any­more are in­vari­ably well judged and pol­ished. They es­tab­lish Somerville as a writer of un­de­ni­able tal­ent, al­beit one who is yet to dis­cover a style of his own. Em­mett Stinson re­cently has ar­gued against the el­e­ment of

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