Miss­ing pieces in the puz­zle of ex­is­tence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Lucy Durneen’s Wild Ges­tures is a stun­ning col­lec­tion of sto­ries full of in­sight on the un­con­quer­able spa­ces be­tween peo­ple, the missed or never pos­si­ble op­por­tu­ni­ties, the mis­takes that couldn’t be oth­er­wise, the yearn­ing for things we can’t or shouldn’t have.

It’s about bear­ing the weight of it all, of the reach­ing and yearn­ing and try­ing to hold and know­ing we can’t.

But in this col­lec­tion Durneen also cap­tures those beau­ti­ful, bliss­ful rare mo­ments of sub­lim­ity, and also sub­mis­sion to the mo­ment. This is the first book by Durneen, who is based in the south­west of Eng­land and met her Aus­tralian pub­lisher, Anna Sold­ing of Ade­laide-based Mid­night Sun, at a short-story con­fer­ence in Vi­enna.

Though Durneen’s sto­ries have been widely pub­lished in jour­nals and mag­a­zines, and have won prizes, pub­lish­ers re­main con­ser­va­tive when it comes to col­lec­tions. But this meet­ing be­tween a Bri­tish writer and small Aus­tralian pub­lisher was for­tu­itous. Just the right fit.

The tones, set­tings, points of view and tenses in these sto­ries are var­ied, but one com­mon­al­ity across them is the way they with­hold, the way they switch the reader’s brain on, and then slowly re­veal, but never too much. At the end of each there is still a sense of the mys­te­ri­ous, but it be­comes a shared mys­tery be­tween the char­ac­ters and the reader. The sto­ries are psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, not mere nar­ra­tives.

In The Path of Least Re­sis­tance, the nar­ra­tor ar­rives back at a shop with lunch and, on en­ter­ing, feels like a stranger. Jim, whom we as­sume to be her part­ner, is sell­ing a chair to a younger woman. We pause on the image of the woman, and through the nar­ra­tor’s eyes the scene is psy­cho­log­i­cally un­set­tling and painful, es­pe­cially since she has al­ready es­tab­lished that she feels mis­placed in a place she shouldn’t.

She notes of the young woman, ‘‘You could tell that she didn’t have any­thing press­ing down on her from in­side, noth­ing that showed on her face when she thought no-one was look­ing, the way a child thinks it’s in­vis­i­ble when it closes its eyes.’’ We glean that the nar­ra­tor both ad­mires and is threat­ened by the young woman.

They are in­tro­duced, and then there is ten­sion be­tween the nar­ra­tor and her part­ner about feed­ing a dog, with the young woman caught up in it.

The way the cou­ple speak to each other in­di­cates more ten­sion in their his­tory. And then the fo­cus is on the chair that is be­ing sold, and through the chair the reader re­ceives more in­sight, quick and sub­tle, into the his­tory of the cou­ple, and where blame may fall, and into the heart­break and dis­ap­point­ment of the nar­ra­tor. The last line shows us just how much had been hoped for in the re­la­tion­ship. There’s a puz­zle, an un­furl­ing, and then a more com­plex and beau­ti­ful puz­zling, and the reader is in­vited to join in.

Be­sides this shared sense of mys­tery, an­other com­mon­al­ity be­tween the sto­ries is an ur­gency, and en­ergy, in the writ­ing. As though each char­ac­ter is push­ing at some­thing, or grasp­ing or gath­er­ing, and then, in mo­ments, there is a glim­mer of ei­ther what they seek or some­thing dif­fer­ent and sur­pris­ing. And this kind of rhythm re­sults in some spec­tac­u­larly in­sight­ful, po­etic lines and pas­sages.

In Every­thing Beau­ti­ful is Far Away a woman tries to com­pre­hend her hus­band’s ill­ness and his stay in hos­pi­tal. Af­ter an ex­change with the hus­band about shared me­mories she re­alises she had brought up an ex­pe­ri­ence that was with a former lover, not him, and this is what she feels:

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