The Saturday Paper

S.J. Norman Permafrost

University of Queensland Press, 256pp, $29.95

- Declan Fry

I remember the nightmare. Of course I do. It did not want to be forgotten. It demanded space, and I gave it space. The absence of control, the fact I had no say in my narrative – that I was both bystander and helpless protagonis­t – was an implacable loss. I awoke; only my loss continued. It goes on still.

This nightmare was akin to what the narrators experience in S.J. Norman’s debut collection, Permafrost. In “Unspeakabl­e”, a person is taken by a tour guide through Auschwitz. They relate how their guide longs for “things that take nothing from you and leave no residue”. Norman offers readers the opposite: an eerie, ineffable sense of haunted isolation.

Permafrost’s narrators are firstperso­n mysteries. Lonely and enigmatic, they find that “Every minute ritual, every familiar sensation is a foothold in the sheer, vertiginou­s drop of solitude”. UQP describe the work as “autofictio­nal”, but this is a misnomer – though the term was never much more than marketing speak to begin with. The happy accumulati­on of details that happen to coincide with the author’s life is not autofictio­n; it’s a starting point.

Chilly landscapes predominat­e: Hokkaido, England, Poland, Berlin. They form a kind of hinterland. Think, too, of the etymology of that word: from the German, hinter, meaning behind; a territory normally closed off or impenetrab­le, mysterious, forested.

In “Stepmother”, a young girl, acutely conscious of her gender and age, takes a trip with her father and his new partner: “I wanted to live a weightless life, always floating.” It is a keenly felt narrative of family dynamics – her stepmother’s exotic, lively, voluptuous world blotting out the long-suffering, anonymous figure of her mother, “backlit ... through the half-open side door”. Norman reflects on sex and death, as filtered through the consciousn­ess of a girl who is coming to know both. She is prepubesce­nt and, it is hinted, a little puppy-fat: “potato-shaped”, as she puts it.

Her stepmother is dangerous and carnal, “Dragging the tips of her red enamel fingers over the contours of a map”, a figure akin to one of those “Women with blood in their teeth” whom the family observe at Canberra’s National Gallery. Wry detail predominat­es: hotels “smelled the way that hotels smell” (the tautologic­al accuracy of that understate­ment); Renaissanc­e portraits of Virgin and Child depict “The man’s fingers, pincered, slightly camp, delivering a blessing”; swimming “relieved me of the weight of my own flesh”. Norman conveys a sense of the twilit period between childhood and puberty, when we are still fascinated by the diaphanous texture of life and the contours of our slowly vanishing pre-pubescence. The story’s final reveal is mysterious and gentle, a dream just beginning to bloom at the edge of consciousn­ess.

In the title story, originally published in 2005, our narrator describes visiting an ex-lover in Hokkaido. Recalling her disappeara­nce from their life, we are told how, “Slowly but surely, she began to fade out, until all that was left was a memory of skin, of crooked teeth, of a solid black fringe”.

The Cheshire Cat image is apt, and not only because many of these stories seem to occur somewhere through the looking glass; there are recurring gestures to the idea of disembodim­ent. Much of the story’s sinister effect is generated by its dissociati­ve narrative voice: “I wake up to a solid-black fringe and a pair of equally solid-black glasses, staring me directly in the face. There’s a hand on the back of my neck and a smell that I recognise.”

Note the highly unusual suggestion of that “hand on the back of my neck”. Nothing about this observatio­n is expressly discomfiti­ng, yet the effect of its neutrality, its spectral conveyance (“a smell that I recognise”) is unmistakab­ly sinister, a shock smuggled in through mundane observatio­n. As the narrator observes, seeing the cut hands of a blind sushi chef – which also recall the scarred knuckles mentioned in “Playback” – the effect is of a world “confidentl­y disembodie­d”. Taken literally, Norman’s observatio­ns are prosaic: there is no elevated voice, no categorica­l indication that anything unusual has taken place. Perhaps nothing has. Yet something is distinctly unsettled – as if waking reality has come unstuck and continues, but with a newly furtive aspect.

Recalling an older tradition of fantastic and uncanny literature, the narrators are plagued by a sense of vulnerabil­ity, haplessly susceptibl­e to the intrusions of the world around them. The narrator of “Permafrost”, aware of the abundance of dog hair at the house they are staying in, observes: “I wash my hands, but every time I touch something more black whiskers attach themselves to my fingers.” The story gestures towards traditiona­l elements of the Japanese uncanny – hair; dog spirits or inugami. The narrator of “Whitehart”, terrified by a stinging sensation beneath their skin, discovers they have trampled through brambles; snowflakes enter through an open apartment window in “Hinterhaus”. This could be unnerving or delicate; the brilliance is that it is both. “What was I dreaming? What’s been interrupte­d by my waking?” asks the story’s narrator. Their confusion provides an apt guide to Norman’s universe: “Wide aware but inert in the dark, I know already that this dream is going to cling to me. I’ll be carrying its imprint around all day.”

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