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