Less is more in de­pict­ing the torn bits of or­di­nary lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James McNa­mara

When There’s Nowhere Else to Run By Mur­ray Mid­dle­ton Allen & Unwin, 243pp, $27.99 Storms hit Syd­ney the week I read When There’s Nowhere Else to Run, Mur­ray Mid­dle­ton’s de­but col­lec­tion of short sto­ries. From my desk, I watched the sky yel­low. And then the storm crashed through, fling­ing hail at tin roofs and smash­ing trees, flood­ing, haul­ing sand from beaches and blast­ing it up streets.

It seemed the right ac­com­pa­ni­ment to Mid­dle­ton’s work. His col­lec­tion, which won this year’s The Aus­tralian- Vo­gel’s Lit­er­ary Award, is har­row­ing and beau­ti­ful, chart­ing lives that are bro­ken and dis­con­nected, dis­rupted and in pain.

A mother flies to Perth to give up her son to her ex-hus­band, un­able to cope with the child’s

May 30-31, 2015 dis­abil­ity. A fa­ther, raw from los­ing his wife, re­sents his chil­dren at a busy show­ground. A high-achiev­ing school­girl is hit full-force by first love — for a teacher. A drifter, griev­ing over his fa­ther’s death and lack of com­pas­sion, finds the be­gin­nings of con­nec­tion with two new friends in a pub.

Mid­dle­ton writes with ex­quis­ite con­trol. In­flu­enced by Hem­ing­way’s ice­berg style — eco­nom­i­cal prose that hints rather than states — he gen­er­ates force and pathos by sig­nalling emo­tional trauma and let­ting ab­sence speak. In For­get About the Prices, a mother tracks her ad­dict son to a su­gar­cane town. Mid­dle­ton never ref­er­ences heroin di­rectly. Rather: “‘You’re look­ing thin,’ she said, eye­ing his wrists. ‘Am I al­lowed to buy you din­ner tonight?’ ”

The mother is quiet and brave, but we know she’s far from her comfort zone — in stiff clothes un­suit­able for the heat, wor­ry­ing about the “young girls” hitch­hik­ing “with their thumbs out”, prais­ing the “chore­og­ra­phy” of fire dancers twirling on the grass. Her phys­i­cal jour­ney to this re­mote place re­flects a spir­i­tual one to con­nect with her tor­mented son as best she can. There’s no grand in­ter­ven­tion. She buys him an ice cream — a call-back to in­no­cence — and makes him cry by sim­ply say­ing: “No one’s ashamed of you ... I thought it might be im­por­tant for you to hear it.” With fine, pared-down prose, Mid­dle­ton de­liv­ers poignancy through deftly placed emo­tional mo­ments.

Through­out the col­lec­tion, Mid­dle­ton achieves that sought-af­ter lit­er­ary object: an emo­tion­ally real por­trait of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. This is achieved, in part, via his choice of sub­jects. He ex­plores the frac­ture-lines of re­la­tion­ships, the torn bits of “or­di­nary” lives: af­fairs, the death of friends, im­pend­ing sui­cides, con­cealed abor­tions. From this, he shows how hu­mans re­act to trauma: of­ten, ig­nobly.

His char­ac­ters are sub­tle and their moral am­bi­gu­i­ties re­lat­able. A mid­dle-aged wo­man, try­ing to re­con­nect with her hus­band af­ter an af­fair, wor­ries that she doesn’t feel suf­fi­ciently guilty. A teenager — whose par­ents care for a friend trau­ma­tised by the Black Satur­day fires — is fo­cused more on “stum­bling up the drive­way in the dark, try­ing to avoid Dad’s jon­quils” with his first lover.

A man drives to his girl­friend’s stu­dents’ per­for­mance, look­ing for­ward to hav­ing kids of their own. He “can’t think of any­thing nicer than fin­ish­ing his run for the day and pick­ing up a few young­sters from school, still wear­ing his Aus­tralia Post uni­form, maybe stop­ping at a milk bar to buy Calip­pos if it’s stink­ing hot”. Then, a “skull crashes into his wind­screen, crack­ing it like a spi­der’s web”, leav­ing “a large smear of some­thing on his right … wiper. Mem­brane of some kind”. He knows he should stop, but he keeps driv­ing. His ter­ror is numb­ing, dry­mouthed, and com­mu­ni­cated via his part­ner’s

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