Last Night by James Salter

This story was someone’s suggestion for a perfect short story. It was published in the New Yorker in 2002. It begins with a translator, Walter Such, at home in his lounge room with a guest, Susanna, having a drink. His wife, Marit, comes downstairs in a red evening dress ‘in which she had always been seductive, with her loose breasts and sleek, dark hair’. She asks for a drink too. It transpires that Marit is sick and, as the group talks in a desultory way, ominously the narrators tell us, ‘It was the night they had decided would be the one’.

Immediately a tension is set up and the rest of the night (they are going out for a last meal) builds in the light of this revelation – most poignantly, Marit noting the beautiful night sky on the drive home: ‘The wind was moving in the tops of the shadowy trees. In the night sky there were brilliant blue clouds, shining as if in daylight’. Perhaps the reader is a little surprised at the presence of Susanna, a ‘family friend’ who is only twenty-nine and wearing a ‘short skirt’, but we push this to the back of our minds. Salter is very good at describing Walter’s nervousness and difficulty in bringing himself to give Marit the fatal injection of morphine and there is the wonderful line: ‘Now he had slipped her, as in a burial at sea, beneath the flow of time’. At this stage we are in a sad, emotional place.

This could have just been a story about euthanasia, but the Salter does something I’ve noted before in short story writers; he twists the story to make it something else. Walter comes downstairs after the deed, after he has kissed his wife’s hand farewell, and goes to find Susanna. Although she resists being seduced at that time, Walter ‘devoured her, shuddering as if in fright at the end and holding her to him tightly’. They had been having an affair.

The next morning, they are having breakfast when they hear a footstep on the stairs. Marit appears saying to Walter ‘something went wrong … I thought you were going to help me’. A coda tells us that that was the last time Walter and Susanna were together. We are left to wonder whether Marit devised the whole thing to expose Walter, certainly the decision to invite Susanna to be there on the night of the euthanasia (Marit’s decision) suggests this.

As with some ‘twist’ stories, I felt a little manipulated by this one. The reader is led into the poignancy of the initial situation. We get a little of Marit’s backstory and empathise with the emotiveness of her last thoughts, looking around her house, the things that she would see for the last time, the world moving on and she not in it. Then, Marit is diminished in our eyes, if indeed she has devised a cruel revenge on Walter. Marit does indeed have terminal cancer, so whatever revenge she gets can’t mean much. I was left annoyed with this story. Yes, it is clever, but the emotional resonance is cheapened by the cleverness.

A House in Norway by Vigdis Hjorth

Alma is a middle-aged textile artist living by herself near the sea in a picturesque part of Norway. To help with her finances, she rents out an annex to her house. She lets the annex to a young Polish woman, her boyfriend and young child. To begin with she prides herself on being broad-minded, happy to rent the place out to low-wage people with perhaps a tenuous legal status, but she can’t quite live up to this. She needs the rent but she doesn’t really want to share her space with strangers – the fact that the Polish woman can’t speak Norwegian, doesn’t help, especially when the woman is the victim of domestic violence and the boyfriend breadwinner moves out. Alma comes to a new rental agreement with the woman with the social services involved.  Alma gets slightly annoyed when officialdom takes the side of “the Pole”, as she calls her, although it’s Alma’s house.

Vigdis Hjorth is very good at doing low-level conflict. In her later novel Will and Testament, it is between siblings over the wills of their parents. Alma is not a bad person, in fact she’s funny and a serious creative, but certain things such as the Polish woman running radiators at full bore, while Alma herself is parsimonious and pays the electricity bills, drives her mad. Alongside the growing tension between the two women, Alma muses over her tapestries such as one for her old school and one for the Constitutional committee for a Norwegian anniversary. I found the description of the creative process and how ideas are worked up into creative pieces to be totally absorbing, no mean feat.

Alma is aware of her privileged position vis-à-vis her Polish tenant who works as a cleaner and is a single mother (Alma is divorced and has grown-up children) yet there is an almost insurmountable barrier between them. Alma reflects on what the Pole must think of her – half-drunk, sleep-deprived when working on her commissions, a haphazard housekeeper while the Pole keeps the annex neat as a pin, although overstuffed with gee-gaws, to Alma’s distain.

Things come to a head when the Pole’s husband returns from prison and, after ignoring Alma or putting up with her, Slawomira (as we find out the Pole is called) begins to fight back. Alma has based her Constitutional tapestry on a nineteenth century story she’d read about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who runs away and is caught and sent to an asylum where she commits suicide. Again, Hjorth does a great job of showing us Alma’s thought process here and how she converts it to a visual work. As Alma becomes frantic about making her deadline and what the Poles might do next, the themes of the book coalesce. I loved Alma. I related to her angst, her self-reliance, her will to be generous and her justifications for not being, her nice line in self-mockery. She’s messy and fallible. Hjorth’s enjoyable deadpan narration keeps what is a fairly slight story, in plot terms, bubbling along.

Short Story – Making Stuff Up

Making Stuff Up by KW George

Big Issue Fiction Edition 2019

It’s one of the tropes of fiction writers to write a story about writing a story. This can be done in a metafictional way where the author/narrator steps out of the narrative to show themselves writing it or, as here, it can be a story about a writer trying to write.

George begins her story with her first-person narrator, chatting online with her writing group about an American author, FJ Aden who is in the news because he’s made up things about his own life which aren’t true (this seems to be based on AJ Finn’s confessions). The group discuss whether this matters, and whether or not they’d read this author’s works after the scandal. Our narrator muses that the writing group is supposed to be about their own writing and that it often descends into gossip and chat.

She’s spent so long online that she’s late for making dinner (her husband works in an office all day). There is a slight tension between them because, they are supposed to have given up alcohol for the month and the husband wants a beer. He takes off to get some low alcohol beer from the supermarket and she wanders into her study where she’s hidden a bottle of wine.

For the rest of the night she muses about Aden, who she’d originally defended, saying what’s the difference between making things up in fiction to sell and making things up about your real life? Now she thinks, what does he really know when he described his mother supposedly dying from cancer? Our narrator, it transpires, has experienced chemotherapy and had a mastectomy.

In the morning, she tries to open up a document of the writing she’d done the day before but there’s only a blank page – she’s convinced herself she had actually started on the story she’s trying to write. Here we get a metafictional bit when she recounts to us the idea she has for this story. A man, a bit like her husband, is interested in a woman at the office who he meets in the lift: she’s well-dressed but wearing a necklace of paperclips. His wife, at home, notices ‘he misses her mouth when he bends down to kiss her hello when he gets home from work’.

Then our narrator’s mother rings, breaking into her thoughts, and tells her about a yeti documentary she’s watched – supposedly factual, but of course it must be ‘made up’ to some extent. In the last paragraph our narrator says, now she knows how to end her story – ‘My Lara character needs to have a Mum … who confirms it’s bizarre to … find … a handful of paperclips in your husband’s suit pocket …’

‘Making Stuff Up’ is the type of story that relies on the voice to carry it and George’s narrator is an engaging one. I like that it is a story about writing a story and the extent to which a writer can mine their own life for material. The narrator can identify with Aden because (as we find out in the last para) she is using something personal to ‘make up’ something that might hurt her husband, while at the same time lying about her drinking (which is another type of ‘making something up’). I wasn’t quite convinced about the intervention of the mother and why her mother’s swallowing of the yeti story should convince the narrator about the validity of the paperclip/affair aspect to her story.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable short story, covering some interesting ideas with a light touch.

Short story – Bushfire by Kate Grenville

Bushfire – Kate Grenville

Something Special, Something Rare – Black Inc

Despite its title, ‘Bushfire’ is not predominantly about a bushfire, it is a relationship story, a love story. The fire does appear, however, in the second paragraph: ‘brown smoke hid the contours of the hills over in the distance and smudged the sky. After a term in Mindurra Public school, she had got used to seeing the hills … It was unsettling to have lost them now.’

We are thus introduced to our focalising character, Louise, an outsider to the small town. Louise has walked into town to see if she can volunteer to help with the firefighting but not being particularly useful, she’s sent off to make sandwiches. On her way to the hall, she glimpses a man on a fire truck ‘half-hidden among hoses and tanks’. He lifts a hand in greeting but she is taken by surprise and ‘by the time she waved back, the truck had gone’. We are then given a flashback when Louise recalls the time at a town fair when a busybody intending to matchmake had got the man, Lloyd, to bring her a cup of tea, and then ensues an awkward conversation between them. Again, Louise seems out of synch: although Lloyd blurts out some information about himself, she can’t manage to engage with him – ‘Yes, she’d managed to say, feeling the startled look on her face, hearing it in her voice’. She observes, fascinated, as a blush spreads over Lloyd’s face and neck, and then, to her own discomfiture, she begins to blush herself: ‘It was as if her skin and his were having a conversation with each other, all by themselves’.

This image tells the reader something that Louise only slowly works out for herself as she makes the sandwiches.

A man comes into the refreshment hall from the fires, panicked and excited, and this brings us back to the moment of fear and tension and Louise sees that something she thought mundane about Lloyd might be a ‘kind of heroism’. There is then a flashback to one of Louise’s ex-husbands a survivalist type who said if they were separated, he would meet her on the steps of the Gunnedah post office. She reflects sardonically, that he was ‘not the type of man she would want to find’. This train of thought leads her back to Lloyd and the missed opportunity of her conversation with him that the fire has brought into focus: ‘he would not be burned alive. He would come back down’. The last sentence of the story harks back to the blushing incident and places it at the centre of the meaning of the narrative – ‘perhaps they could continue the conversation that their skins … had already begun’.

This is a charming story that shows Grenville’s ear for human frailty, and for the foibles of quiet, overlooked people. The bushfire is a device that brings the mishandled and awkward meeting between the main characters into focus, and gives it a time imperative. The device of the blush device that has their two bodies ‘talking to each other’ works well, and the heat in their faces links in to the heat of the fires. Like the fire it can either overrun them, or the wind can change and it could go off in another direction.

This story was first published in The Bulletin and in Best Australian Stories 2000.

When reading it, I was reminded that one of my favourite novels is Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (recently reissued by Text) which has a similar mismatched couple at its core.

Short Story – Peeling

I am intending to read and critique a series of short stories to see how they work, and succeed and/or fail. I will examine the whole of the story, including the ending. Fair warning to read the story first, starting here with an unusual story by Peter Carey from 2010.

Peeling – Peter Carey

Meanjin Summer 2010

This is written from the point of view of an elderly male living alone in a room of, perhaps, a boarding house. He tells us of his interest in a woman who lives above him – contemplating her movements, his slow interest in getting to know her, but not too fast. There is a certain creepiness in this attention and voyeurism (the woman is younger and possibly vulnerable). She collects dolls that she de-hairs, pokes their eyes out and paints white. For the first half of this story, I thought it was about getting into the mind of a predator, that the ‘peeling’ of the title was really about him slowly revealing himself to us while he thinks he is exposing and defining the woman. From here, however, Carey twists the narrative as the woman begins to speak and reveal herself to the narrator (much to his annoyance as he desires to reveal her himself). At this point, we find out the woman assists with backyard abortions and this has disturbed her (hence the mutilated, purified dolls). As the narrator disrobes the woman (with her consent), she is peeled away: first clothes, then skin, then gender, then age, then identity as she disintegrates into a tiny shell-like, broken doll.

Carey shows total control of narrative, character, scene, language, as you would expect. If I were writing this story, I would probably have finished it at the half-way mark and made it more about exploration of character, but Carey pushes it further to give it that bizarre twist, and thus an additional metaphorical layer. This does make the reader sit back and consider ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what is he saying?’ but, to me, I thought it was taking it too far – the inherent interest we have in the situation as ‘real’ is wrenched around as we are given further ideas of  ‘peeling’, further ‘layers’ that we weren’t expecting.

Best, Worst and In-between 2019

Last year was a bumper year for me regarding reading. All my life I have been a slow reader, something that didn’t help me when I studied English Literature (yes, there was such a category back then). In 2019 I read 68 books, a record number for me. I put this down to two things: I no longer work part time and only now do occasionally editing, as well as appraisals and my own writing, leaving me more time for reading. Also, I have become a devotee of audiobooks, going through most of the ones I wanted from the local library and then having to bite the bullet and subscribe to Audible, which opened up a cornucopia of titles. I had the sort of thrill over this I used to get going into a gorgeous big, well-stocked bookstore such as the old Collins at Broadway, Borders in Pitt St (also gone long ago) and Dymocks in George St. (I still get it at the overwhelming but wonderful Kinokunya near Town Hall).

When my credit comes up in Audible, I’m almost frozen with the choice available. I will say, though, that there is an added level of decision-making with audiobooks because even my most anticipated or desired title can be ruined by the narrator. Conversely, a wonderful narrator can take a book to another level of enjoyment and appreciation – I think this was the case with the incredibly good narrators for Anna Burns’ Milkman (Brid Brennan), the Elena Ferrante books (Hillary Hubert) and The Goldfinch (David Pittu). As a rule of thumb, I would caution authors against reading their own works (yes, I’m talking about you Philip Pullman). There are, of course, exceptions: who can go past Christopher Hitchens reading Hitch 22 or Helen Garner reading Everywhere I look?

It is interesting that listening to audiobooks, rather than substituting for reading, have added to it. I can listen to an audiobook doing housework, or gardening or going on walks. When I’m tired, or my eyes are sore, I can lie back and be taken away into a wonderful parallel world. One other cautionary note, I can’t listen to difficult (i.e. violent, or frightening, overly complicated) audiobooks before going to bed or I won’t get to sleep. The same can be said for a page-turning thriller – I have to keep listening until I get to a pause in the action. This is the same with the physical act of reading a paper book or ebook, but because I’m sitting up, having to hold an object and turn pages, somehow it’s easier to put the book aside and turn the light off.

Favourite Book Literary: Milkman by Anna Burns. Honourable mentions, Overstory Richards Powers, The Goldfinch Donna Tartt, Machines Like Me Ian McEwen and Ghost Wall Sarah Moss.

Favourite book fantasy/SF: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman. Honourable mention, Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie.

Favourite NF: Not a great year for this, but I enjoyed Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs and Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi – both insightful and enthralling family biographies.

Favourite audiobook: There have been some wonderful ones. Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, The Goldfinch and Ancillary Justice are stand-outs.

Most disappointing book: The Carer Deborah Moggach. I had high hopes for this novel and it let me down badly.

Book that didn’t live up to its hype: The Wall John Lanchester and My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite. How either of these two were long-listed for the Booker prize, I don’t know. The Wall is a fairly lightweight dystopian novel that might have been favoured because its subject matter of refugees being held at bay by a wall surrounding Britain was topical. It started out well, but the storyline became more and more unconvincing. There is nothing wrong with My Sister, the Serial Killer but, again, it is very lightweight. Braithwaite had a fun idea of a woman covering for her sister who seems to have a penchant for disposing of boyfriends, but she didn’t really take this premise anywhere particularly interesting. There are amusing, short chapters and it’s a quick read; and that’s the most I can say for it.

Best comfort read: Their Fractured Light Amie Kaufman, the last in the Starbound Trilogy – the couples at the centre of the previous novels join together to take on the very nasty LaRoux Industries who think nothing of a bit of genocide when any of their terraformed planets go wrong. It sounds tough going but it’s really a lot of hijinks, action and URST.

Best Australian: Joan London’s beautiful and sad Gilgamesh

Book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading: In the Garden of Beasts Erik Larson. Long and tedious. Larson pulls off the extraordinary – making Berlin in the 30s boring.

Harry and Lyra versus Morrigan Crow

Here are three best-selling fantasy series: Harry Potter (of which I have read all several times over), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (of which I have read all, including the latest: The Secret Commonwealth) and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, of which I have read the first title, The Trials of Morrigan Crow – there are two more: Wundersmith and a third instalment due out in 2020, Hollowpox.

When I was reading Nevermoor, I wondered why it didn’t grab me as much as the other two series (which I count as among my favourite books). I did enjoy Nevermoor but I did not rate it as highly as many other fantasy book aimed at the child and YA market. I was more engaged by Christelle Dabos’s Mirror Visitor books, whose strange, exaggerated imagined world, loosely based on a Victorian era mis-en-scene, has something in common with Townsend’s own Nevermoor. Dabos’s books are perhaps aimed more at an older readership, and this lends a certain dark malice to the wacky characters, and her heroine, Ophelia, being older than Morrigan, has more agency. I often found myself being put off by some of the devices in Nevermoor, that seemed like something out of a child’s picture book: the brolly rail which characters can catch by hanging on to their umbrellas, the ever-changing bedroom, the ‘umble, chimney sweeper-like boy who befriends Morrigan. There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to it all – I could never see the appeal in that tale.

So, Nevermoor is aimed at a younger readership but so were the first Harry Potter books (Harry was 11, the same age as Morrigan) and Pullman’s The Northern Lights. What these latter books have is a level of seriousness, and a level of realness. Okay, the Dursleys are pretty exaggerated but you do get a sense that Harry is a normal kid coping with the circumstances meted out to him – school and a difficult home life. I also thought that Lyra’s real life was established at Jordan College where there was a lot of ‘normal life’ going on, like responsibilities, and an adult life of complications just beyond Lyra’s understanding.

With Morrigan, there is no ‘normal’ life, as such, established. She is in a strange, alternative world and she is a strange, alternative person – a cursed child, blamed for every calamity big or small in the region and, who, it is preordained, will die on her eleventh birthday.

I suppose I am saying that I like a real-life anchor to this sort of fantasy to leaven the whimsy and flummery of fantasy worlds such as Nevermoor.

I haven’t read the second instalment, Wundersmith, so perhaps Morrigan grows up and learns to face horrors and find a way through them herself. Certainly, at the end of Nevermoor, this is suggested.

Angel Mage by Garth Nix

We are in a reimagined 17th century Europe where something terrible has happened in Ystara (Spain). The inhabitants that survived fled and are now an underclass of ‘refusers’ in Surance (France). They are immune from the angelic powers that act as a sort of power source in the society (angel power is called upon by using icons – this might be for healing, or for building, or for protection, or pretty much anything). Refusers who are touched by angelic magic either die quickly of the ash blood plague or are turned into violent ‘beastlings’. Cardinals who can harness the powers of the highest angels are in charge, along with the Queen. The story revolves around a powerful icon-maker,  Liliath, thought dead a century before, who comes back to life plotting revenge.

Angel Mage references Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and much of the novel revolves around the development and interaction of the four musketeers – Dorotea an icon painter (and based on D’Artagnan), Henri, a clerk, Simeon, a doctor and Agnez, a swashbuckling cadet musketeer. These are great characters, and a lot of fun, but the exposition around them takes up a lot of the book so that we get a lot of banter between them, when they should actually be solving the conundrum around the mysterious Lady Dehiems and what the hell the Night Crew of the refusers are up to. Still, as you would expect of Nix, there is a lot to like here — great world building, a lot of thrills and adventure, romantic entanglements and empathetic characters.

Mr Nix says this is a stand alone novel, but there’s a lot of backgrounding and build up of the main characters, and a complicated and interesting world, so that I’d be pretty surprised if there wasn’t more stories set in ‘Surance and neighbouring states’.

The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey

The second in Massey’s Perveen Mistry murder mysteries set in 1920’s India (the first was The Widows of Malabar Hill). Perveen is a ‘lady’ lawyer, educated at Oxford after discrimination suffered when trying to undertake her law degree in India (this is explained in Massey’s novella ‘Outnumbered at Oxford’). Perveen is constrained by the mores of the time, including British colonialism, and also by her Parsi background (she can’t, for example, be divorced from her violent estranged husband). But never mind, she can look after herself and take on most people. Here she takes a job mediating between a maharani from a far-flung principality in the hills and the British authorities who have legal care for her son – the maharaja-in-waiting. Perveen gets embroiled in a possible murder investigation when she finds the maharani’s other son was supposedly mauled to death on a hunt in suspicious circumstances. The palace is remote, hard to get to, and hemmed in by mist, and there may be a poisoner at work. There is a suggestion of love interest in the form of Colin Sandrigham – a slightly bitter but companionable British agent living in the picturesque but lonely circuit house where Perveen is put up in bad weather before moving on to the palace (much to her chagrin, Colin is the only one there besides a loyal servant ). Some may find the pace too slow, but I love the detail of the setting and customs as well as Perveen’s self-control and no-nonsense approach. She may not, perhaps, be the action heroine that is now ubiquitous but she’s smart, determined and knows she must work within the constraints that are placed on her.

The Carer by Deborah Moggach

This is one of those strange books that I thought was fantastic and well-realised for the first two thirds and then annoying, boring and disappointing for the last third. Moggach has some insightful, humorous and poignant things to say about the dilemma middle-aged children have when their parents become frail and elderly. Narrated alternately from the points of view of the siblings Robert and Phoebe – one a well-off aspiring writer in an unhappy marriage and the other a single fiftyish woman living in a village doing unsatisfying artwork and having a casual affair with a guy who lives in a caravan in the woods. The siblings’ mother has died and their ex-scientist Dad (with slight dementia) needs full-time care in the home. Neither one wants to give up their life to do this, so they employ a series of carers. The latest one, Mandy, seems ideal: capable, cheerful and efficient. They think they can sit back and relax but things about Mandy start to worry them, and the reader. So far so enjoyable. Then comes a twist that seemed forced and unlikely to me, and at two thirds of the way through, new (and boring) characters are introduced. Moggach lost me at that point. I didn’t want to read the rest but forced myself to.