This was the third year of the Western Australia Margaret River Story Competition; 24 stories were chosen from 218 entries from all over Australia and one from New Zealand for the collection. Most stories focus on character, combined with social issues, making this an engaging and an insightful read. Themes such as new motherhood, love relationships, marital breakdown, ageing, and facing death can be classified within an overall category of Life Stages. Eccentric characters feature also, like the young woman in the winning entry “The Trouble with Flying”, who will never make it through TAFE studies.
I’d like to preface this review by suggesting some of the reasons why a reader might be drawn to a particular story. Often it is quite subjective. The four stories I’ve chosen to review attracted me by their themes, their emotional impact and, for two of them, by their humour. Other elements I looked for in selecting my favourites were fascinating story lines, authentic voice and vibrant language.
My very first choice of a story to review is the winning one by Ruth Wyer: “The Trouble With Flying”, after which the collection is named. It is set in Granville in the western suburbs of Sydney. Firstly, I was drawn to this story because of the humour imbibed in it, and because I was once a TAFE teacher; but more particularly because my first posting as a young teacher from the country was to a primary school in Granville. I still remember, all these years later, some of the girls I taught during my three years there, and how I suspect I was able to inspire one or two of them.
The narrator of the story is of the “fly-on-the-wall” point of view. I imagine that this narrator is a teacher or a counsellor at Granville TAFE, who hears the story from some of the students, and partly from Rita, a Granville TAFE student, swept up and along by the events and misfit characters surrounding her. Rita is a first-year student, who is taken under the wing of the second-year students, because they sense that she is one of them: a social misfit. As the story progresses, and especially towards the end, it becomes Rita’s story, as if told from her point of view.
The story is hilarious on one level, full of pathos on another: pathos, not only for the characters, but, implicitly at least, for the staff at the TAFE, who must decide what to do for the student misfits in their care. Dangerman is a Lebanese “ne’er do well”, who acts the clown and is deadly serious about it. He catches a pigeon that is distracting the class, and tells his friends that, instead of taking it outside and setting it free, he “broke its neck” then put it in his bag for his mother to cook at night. Rita has developed a pathological fear of writing, which does not augur well for her career prospects at TAFE. She was placed in a Chemistry Course, because of the fact that there would be less emphasis on the spoken or written word. The tragedy surrounding all players concerned is well depicted in this telling sentence: “Rita’s face cracked like a dyke at the talk of more study but her father had looked at her mother and her mother had looked at the counsellor and said well if she thinks she’s going to sit around at home all day in those goddam pyjamas she can think again.” (p. 23)
There are other student characters, such as Milo and Zarko, who radiate humour throughout the story; they are typical of male teenagers, perhaps with a surfeit of testosterone, trying to compete with one another for funniest antics; but Dangerman is the prince of clowns. He it is who ties the fishing line around the seagull’s leg: “A seagull lands in the circle and picks up the chip; Dangerman pulls quickly; the bird flies off, and the knot closes around one of its legs…The bird takes off trailing five metres of fishing line behind it.” (Pp.28-29)
But the story ends on a worrying note. In spite of the hilarity--and the story has some very funny moments from beginning to end--the seagull with the fishing line on its leg becomes a metaphor for Rita’s situation: “And when the rest of the flock are snatching sleep or jostling over picnic scraps, it will sit quietly amongst them pecking worryingly at a knot it can never hope to work loose.” (p.29)
I found this an interesting story from another perspective. The humour seems to carry it forward, so that there is little need for “showing”. In fact, this story breaks the cardinal rule of creative writing “Show don’t tell”, in that it is mostly “telling”. And yet the story works, because the narrator offers a voice for the misfit anti-heroine Rita, who cannot write or even speak with any fluidity, along with it, from beginning to end. By telling Rita’s story in a flat and straight voice, but with all the humorous characters and incidents intact, the narrator conveys the pathos of Rita’s situation, while at the same time creating an entertaining read.
Cassie Hamer’s “The Life in Her Hands” is another intriguing story that spoke to me from the beginning, because of its main theme, “new mother and baby”. Having been once a new mother and a current grandmother of infants, I can empathise with the opening scenario of a young mother’s plight as she “loses it” while trying to comfort a screaming baby. A stress-based decision follows, to take a walk to the beach at 3 am with her wakeful baby. This leads Annika into an adventure with a dark side to it. She finds herself at a beach party, where she becomes the love interest of a young man, suddenly smitten with her. Although this initial theme is depicted with sensitivity and innocence, the contrast with the near-drowning that occurs next is startling, since Annika, being the only adult at the gathering, is faced with the potential responsibility for dealing with the victim of the near drowning. Other themes, such as marital infidelity hang implicitly off the main narrative.
As befits the theme of escaping from a screaming baby, the descriptions of nature, its beauty and quiet, are appealing in this story: “The moon glowed like a white button. Light spilled across the road and draped itself over the roofs of the houses.” (59)
Anyone who has had a close relationship with a baby will empathise with the passion and the despair depicted so well by the narrator as she considers her situation: “She had thought she wanted a baby, in the same way she thought she wanted to be married. She loved Paul. She loved children. There was no reason not to. The double negative equalled a positive. Didn’t it? … She couldn’t explain to him the darkness in her this pink child provoked.”(p.60)
Lauren Foley in “Squiggly Arse Crack” also deals with the theme of new motherhood, but in a totally different vein. This is a clever story, and a funny, quirky one. The language is especially clever, mimicking that of a baby with its rhythms and its inanities, and yet managing to further the storyline at the same time: “’Ooh Baba! Two Baba! You Baba! Zoo Baba!’ whatever she hollers Squig settles swiftly to her sounds, (Ding dong) Trump, trump, trump—a knocking at the door. ‘Rat-a-tat-tat.’ Poking her face over Squig’s crib. Clump, clump, clump as she stumbles over the labyrinth of baby junk, unpacked possessions, and discarded gift wrap.” (p.75) Infantile regression in motherhood is suggested by the use of baby talk throughout the story. And the highs and lows of new motherhood—its passion and its stressors--are depicted once again in this story, but through the use of humour this time.
The new mother’s obsession with changing nappies and cleaning bottoms is highlighted obliquely with delicious irony, through the theme of the mother’s burgeoning figure—her “arse crack”-- introduced in the very first sentence and developed later on in relation to the baby’s nether regions: “Do you think Squig’s bum looks big in this?” (p.76). The hurried pace to this story is suggestive of the mother’s harried day, ever subjugated to the whims of her new master, the baby: “Unlocking her car she’s reminded of a Facebook meme from the other day: ‘You know your life has changed when…going to the shops by yourself is a holiday’—motherhood.” (p.78)
Rachelle Rectuchi’s “My House” is an excellent but dark story with some extremely negative characters. It reflects great pathos, without sliding into cloying pity or nostalgia. The fact that it’s narrated in a child’s voice by one of the protagonists in the heart-wrenching story adds to the pathos:
“Mum! I shake her.
Mum! There’s a fire! My voice is funny. I shake her real hard.
Get it ya self ya lazy bitch. Her eyes keep shut.” (p.103)
The narrator shows the situation as it is: so deeply uncomfortable and tragic for the children who inhabit the house, that the fire comes as a release for the reader, even with the knowledge of the mother’s consequent demise. For she is such a negative character—perhaps has become so through societal neglect?--that conflagration occurs as the only solution to the darkness in this extreme example of an “ugly household” (at least in terms of the adults who inhabit it). It is an uncompromising story of emotional desolation, perhaps suggestive of many houses in certain low-income families—for example in some needy indigenous communities?--where things cannot get much worse before something has to give.
“Red Saffron” by Isabelle Lu is full of irony and sensuality, and deals with the two favourite subjects for many of us: food and sex. But in this story, all the senses come into play, subtly woven into the main theme of cooking for seduction. Taste is enshrined in the lavish dishes, often combined with visual beauty: “I fry up finely chopped ginger and onions with a bit of garlic, grate the beetroot, parmesan and haloumi cheese, and mix them. The exposure of the white haloumi amid the violet red is violently erotic.” (p.201). The harmony of the senses and sensuality--the exotic sounds of sitars, the smell of petals and the sensuality of the brain enshrined in references to Freud and intellectual lovers--is played out like a symphonic experience.
The narrator is ostensibly a free spirit who expects to “have it all”. A twice-married woman and the mother of a young daughter, she engages in a plan of seduction of Walter--also married and with three children--through delectable recipes and staged dining rituals. In league with the pagan hedonism imbibed in the themes and language, there is little sense of conscience in the story, as it is about pleasure, not guilt. The odd mix of a spiritual theme, gaining momentum especially towards the end, adds complexity to the narrative, emphasising the irony at the base of it. Is the reader in some way like Walter, the about-to-be seduced married man? This reader is, indeed, seduced by the language, which is as richly sensual as the recipes that the narrator cooks. Humour, inherent throughout the story, invites us to submit to the ploy of a first person character without scruples, and wedded only to bliss, and to just enjoy the experience: “Tonight Walter will have a taste of the Divine, and feel like a god. He’ll find freedom that he’s never known before. There are no rules, except those we engrave into our own Karma Sutra.” (P.208)
I enjoyed reading the short stories I chose to review from this collection, and I will continue dipping into the book for enjoyment in the future. Congratulations to the authors whose short stories were chosen for the collection, and to the editors and all those associated with publishing this excellent anthology once again.
Anne Skyvington is a Sydney based writer. Her blog write4publish covers a wide range of topices from the spiritual through to short stories written by Anne to short story reviews.