Brevity and depth in a lyri­cal land­scape

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright

Crow’s Breath By John Kin­sella Transit Lounge, 208pp, $25.95 The sto­ries that make up John Kin­sella’s Crow’s Breath are re­mark­able for their brevity or, more specif­i­cally, for their abil­ity to con­dense whole worlds — the so­cial lives of small towns, com­plex fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, his­to­ries and haunt­ings — into a few short pages. Few of the sto­ries are more than five pages long, yet they are dense enough, and al­lu­sive enough, to res­onate much fur­ther and con­jure nar­ra­tives that ex­tend be­yond the lim­its of the text.

This is, per­haps, to be ex­pected from a writer such as Kin­sella, who is most prom­i­nent as a

June 20-21, 2015 poet. There is cer­tainly some­thing poetic in the econ­omy and in­ten­sity of the lan­guage in these sto­ries. Many of them, fur­ther­more, are struc­tured around a cen­tral metaphor or pun: a play on the two mean­ings of the word ‘‘refuse’’ un­der­scores The Tip, for ex­am­ple, and Mon­i­tor is about both lizards and the act of watch­ing.

At times, how­ever, this can feel a lit­tle heavy­handed — such as in the open­ing story, The Ea­gle. Here, a mother di­rectly refers to her son as ‘‘my lit­tle lamb’’ three times in quick suc­ces­sion; it is this pet name that has caused the boy to fear be­ing taken — as a new­born lamb might be — by a wedge-tailed ea­gle. But the mul­ti­ple rep­e­ti­tion feels forced and so un­der­mines the oth­er­wise del­i­cate and nu­anced por­trayal of the young boy. Sim­i­larly, a later story fol­lows a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict learn­ing to plough on a friend’s fam­ily farm, who refers to hav­ing dropped out of univer­sity, leav­ing an un­fin­ished the­sis on ‘‘Satan and Re­demp­tion in Par­adise Lost’’ and this de­tail is jar­ring be­cause it so ob­vi­ously echoes his own tra­jec­tory within the tale.

But de­spite this oc­ca­sional clunk­i­ness in some of the struc­tur­ing de­vices, the sto­ries in Crow’s Breath are lyri­cal, and es­pe­cially pow­er­ful in their evo­ca­tions of land­scapes and of the lives lived within them. These land­scapes are di­verse — and in­clude small-town Amer­ica, coastal vil­lages in Ire­land and the is­land Re­union, near Mada­gas­car — but more of­ten the sto­ries are cen­tred on Perth, Carnar­von and the West Aus­tralian wheat belt that is the set­ting for so much of Kin­sella’s other work.

Land­scape is, un­sur­pris­ingly, most im­por­tant in these wheat-belt sto­ries. Many are short por­traits of life on the land and fol­low char­ac­ters whose ex­pe­ri­ences and per­son­al­i­ties are all shaped by the coun­try they live on. There are farm­ers fight­ing to make a liv­ing on land ru­ined by ris­ing salin­ity; a pair of coun­try doc­tors strug­gling to ser­vice the ‘‘hun­dreds and hun­dreds of square kilo­me­tres’’ un­der their re­mit; and a wa­ter car­rier who takes ad­van­tage of these very dis­tances to con­duct an il­licit af­fair.

At times, too, these traces of the land­scape are marked on or in the very bod­ies of these char­ac­ters, such as the reclu­sive Mary in Mon­i­tor, who has had so many skin can­cers burned from her pale skin that she no longer ven­tures out­side with­out cov­er­ing her­self en­tirely, or the el­derly engi­neer in The Sleeper, who has suf­fered chronic in­som­nia since travers­ing the wheat belt on a train as a child. Land­scape here is not so much a char­ac­ter in the sto­ries as the el­e­men­tal force that pro­pels them.

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