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.

Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi

I became interested in the lives of Chinese people during Mao’s cultural revolution after reading Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans. Bright Swallow does not have the epic sweep of Chang’s work but is a memoir of Bi’s teenage and early adult life in Beijing and the countryside in the seventies and early eighties. Bi’s parents were educated and well off, and in the case of her mother, musically talented. Such qualities had them labelled ‘rightists’ and penalised. A slip up by her father, compounded the offence and he, and then his sons, were sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’.

Bi and her mother lived by themselves in Beijing in a courtyard house divided into a number of homes and subsisted as best they could. Vivian – Xiyan in Chinese, meaning ‘bright swallow’ – knows she comes from ‘bad origins’ and will never be accepted because of this. When she is just 15, her mother dies of lung cancer and Xiyan is left on her own and is determined to look after herself learning to cook, clean and budget. In her first year she can’t get the hang of the stove and runs out of money for fuel, so almost freezes. She has a hankering for crispy pancakes sold by hawkers and foolishly buys two, then has no money for food until the monthly allowances comes due. In a time when everyone reports on everyone else, she is fortunate to have a kind woman is her ‘compound leader’ who helps her learn to look after herself.

Xiyan works hard at school, wanting to make something of herself to fulfil her mother’s dictum to ‘live a life’. Helping other students with homework leads to a cadre’s son lending her books of Western classics (something that is strictly illegal so that Xiyan must read the book quickly and return it) She starts with The Count of Monte Christo, and to keep the story in her mind and amuse other children she memorises the text and recounts it. This is something that could get her into trouble, so she carries out various subterfuges to continue doing it, and it becomes a popular event.

The universities have been closed but then Mao miraculously announces they will open. There is a flurry of competition and studying, and Xiyan’s hopes are up. However, just as suddenly, Mao sends all the city high school graduates to do a period of work in the countryside, including Xiyan. Her determination to succeed even manifests itself here and, despite a denunciation by her father (something that she can ever quite forgive), which means she is singled out for tough treatment and humiliation, she throws herself into village life becoming indispensable and accepted, finally getting to look after some working horses, which she loves.

Of course, Mao dies, the cultural revolution ends, and China opens up a fraction, but it is no easy course for Xiyan to make it to Australia still having ‘bad origins’ (she eventually finds a way around this). This is a lovely, honest memoir and gives a great insight into a young girl living in extraordinary times. It shows that in a time of hardship, personal loss, sanctioned violence (by red guards), quixotic government edicts and (often familial) betrayals, there are still kindnesses, generosity and small pleasures. Bi does admit, though, the qualities of toughness, resilience and self-reliance she had to develop to survive on her own have stayed with her – she has never quite been able to soften them.

 

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

I began by being extremely drawn to this account of dealing with a difficult parent in their old age. My late mother, too, was a (convincing) fantasist who turned on her daughters as we tried to help her as she declined. The incredible tension experienced when my version of things was not believed by others (doctors, health workers, social workers etc etc) was very potently portrayed by Laveau-Harvie when she encountered this.

However, this is not a blow-by-blow description of what happened to Laveau-Harvie and her sister but more a work of creative non-fiction – moving back and forwards in time, withholding, immersing the reader in mood and the beautiful environment of the Canadian prairie where her parents had their large house (don’t be fooled by the barn-like shack on the cover – think more like Dynasty). The author creates the story through carefully-chosen scenes (often blackly comic) and interior musings.

However, as the narrative progressed, I lost the connection I felt in the beginning as I realised this was not (perhaps necessarily) an impartial account. What is very brave about the book is that Laveau-Harvie opens herself up to being seen as unsympathetic (I’m sure most authors would pull hard against exposing themselves in this way. I felt terrible guilt after my mother passed away – did Laveau-Harvie feel something similar that was expiated, to a certain extent in this aspect of the work? Who knows.) I may have been too close to the story to be impartial myself but I had a strong negative reaction to the fate of the mother and the valorising of the father who, after all, had been complicit with his wife in her treatment of the daughters. The Erratics raises a plethora  issues and, after winning The Stella Prize, many more people will get to discuss them.

Skylarking – Kate Mildenhall

Mildenhall’s novel has some lovely descriptive writing of life in a small lighthouse-keeper community on the NSW south coast in the 1880s. Two teenagers, Kate and Harriet, are close friends enjoying a lot of freedom running around picnicking and playing dares at the cliff’s edge. This idyllic time is threatened when the girls’ nascent sexuality emerges and Harriet, in particular, wants romance, and we assume marriage. Kate is more of a free spirit. McPhail, a man in his thirties, arrives on the cape as a fisherman. Despite being an unlikely object for Harriet’s interest, she is aware of her sexual power over him and toys with encouraging him. This complication draws Kate in, and a tragedy plays out. The novel is based on a true story and I think this constrained the writer so that the motivations are sometimes unclear. The ending is extended way too long, lessening the impact of what is already a fairly low-key narrative.

Black Inc have given the novel a beautiful evocative cover.

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

This novel could have been a lot better than it turned out to be. It has an interesting premise. A mother, Anne, takes her autistic daughter for a long bush walk, a moment’s inattention and the daughter runs off and cannot be found, despite searches for her. As times passes Anne comes under increasing suspicion and vilification. Lorenzo writes well and evocatively, and her portrayal of Anne is nuanced, drawing the reader in to her plight. However, the promise of tension and conflict isn’t really achieved. Perhaps we are given too much detail of Anne’s everyday life and Lorenzo is more focused on the dynamics of interpersonal and family relations, rather than on creating a sense of threat and confrontation (although she does do a great portrayal of an ordinary middle-class woman tainted by an accusation of harming her own child and having to face hostility and abuse). This is the strongest aspect of the novel and reminded me of that other great book on a similar theme, Emily Ruskovich’s ‘Idaho’.

I felt Lorenzo and her editor allowed too many extraneous threads to remain in the novel, for example a subplot around an Iraqi asylum-seeker that went nowhere. There was a sort of feel-good bagginess about some aspects of the novel that detracted from the central focus and made for a more pedestrian pace. The cover probably says it all – the publisher categorised it as a family relationships novel, rather than a thriller. Nevertheless, it is a nicely written and insightful account of a woman in extremis.

The Good People – Hannah Kent

I finally ‘read’ Hannah Kent’s novel ‘Burial Rites’ in audio book form. I had avoided novel, really, because of all the hype around it: somehow it came across as a genre-type book because it was based on a gruesome murder, with domestic violence undertones. What Kent did, in fact, write was a wonderfully controlled novel about a particular closed and tight-knit society – 19th century Iceland – in which the ‘truth’ about the murder is slowly revealed as we get to know the thoughtful and sensitive heroine as she is housed with a family awaiting her execution. The novel was based on a real story that Kent came across in her research.

One of the most amazing things about ‘Burial Rites’ was Kent’s ability to absolutely recreate the everyday life of rural Iceland, capturing the small rhythms of the day and year, and the quiet, subtle interrelations of the characters.

The quite staggering thing about ‘The Good People’ is that Kent has done the exact same thing but this time set in Ireland in 1825. The novel is set in a rural valley, where except for going to the nearest market town to sell their butter and eggs, the people live out the grind on their small landholdings – but of course, they don’t own the land but rent it. It is a limited life in the extreme, but Kent takes us there, and it feels utterly convincing. She has the gift of recreating a tiny, closed-in world, in all the interest of its detail, that is as alien to us today, as if she’d set it on another planet.

Our main characters are Nora, who is widowed in the first chapter, Nance Roach who is the local ‘cunning woman’, someone who deals in cures and charms, and Mary, a fourteen year old who is hired out as a seasonal worker and who comes to help Nora with her severely disabled small grandson. This might be Ireland in 1825 but medieval superstition, especially belief in the Good People – the fairies – still exists. While the local, hard-nosed priest, preaches against the superstition, pretty much everyone in the valley believes in the Good People, avoids places where they might gather, like the Piper’s Grave, and go to Nance to get their ailments cured. It is Kent’s intent to get inside this society, and to let us see their lives and actions through their eyes.

The tragedy of the novel is centred on the grandson, Michael. His mother died when he was two and his father dumps him on Nora and leaves. While Nora’s husband, Martin, dies a few pages in (suspiciously clutching his chest, and at the cross roads), we get the feeling that if he had lived they could have cared for Michael together, but grieving after his death, the difficulty of the disability starts to crush Nora, and the child’s mannerisms and the change in his appearance, makes her happy to eventually accept the rumour that he is a changeling – a fairy child left in the place of her real grandson.

As in ‘Burial Rites’, Kent takes a baffling crime and creates a plausible story around it. Here, she has to convince us that the three women she has portrayed as essentially good, could do something, that, on the face of it, is fairly evil. I don’t know if she is entirely successful but, as with, ‘Burial Rites’, I empathised with the ‘criminals’. Nance Roach, in particular, is a finely-drawn character, but it was the details of life in early 19th century Ireland that fascinated me – the earth floor of the ‘cabins’, goats and chickens in the houses, bare feet, even in the snow, the ‘breakfast potato’, (in fact the diet seems to consist only of milk from their one cow, eggs from the chickens and potatoes from their potato bed). There is also mention of the itinerant poor who are accused of nicking the necks of people’s cows and drinking their blood for sustenance.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

nightguestcoverMuch is made of the tiger in this novel, and that may have been a turn off for some readers, thinking this is magic realism in the vein of Life of Pi. I certainly thought so when I saw the cover for the first trade paperback edition with its cartoonish tiger’s paw peeking around a doorway. The new smaller paperback, that’s just come out, has a more mysterious, evocative cover, in keeping, I think, with the contents of this wonderful novel.

The tiger is a metaphor and doesn’t figure prominently but is a catalyst for much of the action. Ruth is an elderly widow left living alone, in an isolated beach house, having retired there with her late husband, Harry. Ruth is a beautifully-drawn character, tough in some ways but also vulnerable, and full of the memories of a childhood spent in Fiji with her missionary parents. In her isolation, these memories crowd back, especially at night when it seems the insects and hot, fetid atmosphere of Fiji crowds in.

Into Ruth’s self-contained world comes Frida— a large, forthright woman, maybe half-Fijian, maybe not—who says she’s ‘from the government’ and come to help out Ruth around the house. Ruth is surprised, but she has a bad back, and some assistance would be welcome. Frida then begins to insinuate herself into Ruth’s life and the power tussle between the two is played out, at first almost playfully and, as time goes by, a sinister note creeps in.

It is to McFarlane’s credit, and her skill at narrative, that this essentially two-character novel, is so riveting. Both Ruth and Frida are comic in their ways, but the drama of the book depends on us having access to Ruth’s thoughts—funny, sardonic, poignant—and to only know Frida by her actions and her words. But, she too, is funny—a force of nature with her energy and her quirks.

nightguestTPThe writing is also beautifully constructed, conveying with its tight prose and rich imagery, the depth and breadth of Ruth’s world:

Frida sat on the unfamiliar chair and looked at Ruth, impassive. Her obstinacy had a mineral quality. Ruth felt she could chip away at it with a sharp tool and reveal nothing more than the uniformity of its composition.

for example, or

Frida’s suitcase still sat on the sandy grass. It could convincingly have grown from a stalk into a grey-white fruit.

or the acute observation,

Ruth was sensitive to criticism of her father, in that tenuous and personal way in which children are anxious for the dignity of their parents. She worried a great deal for him out in the world.

The Night Guest is an affecting, psychological study with a surprisingly taut, suspenseful element lying somewhere between S J Watson’s thriller Before I Go to Sleep and Jessica Anderson’s wonderful Tirra Lirra by the River. In fact Nora Porteous, of the latter, has much in common with Ruth. Both are fantastic portrayals of older women looking back and assessing their lives, while struggling and dealing with the present.

The Great Unknown – review

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

The problem with a lot of literary anthologies is that they are very diverse. This showcases a range of writing but most readers will only find a few stories in the collection that speak to them. Angela Meyer’s anthology of ghost/speculative/strange/uncanny stories circumvents this. If that’s the kind of writing you like, you can read The Great Unknown from cover to cover.

The writers in this collection were asked to take as a starting point the sort of eerie, otherworldly feel that the TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’ produced. As such, you know that these stories are not going to follow conventional trajectories.

Kathy Charles’ story Baby’s First Words starts off with an everyday situation. A dad is picking up his young child for an access visit. From the beginning Charles’ deftly builds up the tension between the mother and the father. The wife needs the husband to look after the daughter but she tries to keep him talking at the front door unsure about him. He gives one-word answers but the reader has access to his thoughts and he’s ranting and bitter. As he drives away with his daughter he fumes about how his wife thinks the child has learning difficulties because she can’t talk. The reader is fearful for the child but is it the child we should be worried about? I loved this story.

Krissy Kneen’s ‘The Sleepwalker’ deals with an annoying but benign problem—Emily and Brendan are grappling with Emily’s habit if sleepwalking. The easy, mundane relationship of the couple is counterpointed to the growing strangeness of Emily’s behaviour. She starts to take photographs when sleepwalking but Brendan laughs it off—the photos are mostly blank. Then Emily develops some more and they see something in them. From there the story only gets creepier.

Damon Young’s ‘Art’ is clever and scary but not in the way the reader initially believes. It blurs the line between the erotic in art and the response in the viewer. Ben’s excitement at the artworks he sees at an exhibition spills over to what he feels towards a girl he’s just met outside the gallery. As in Baby’s First Words, the reader is led to be so afraid for a particular character that we don’t see the blow when it comes.

Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Sticks and Stones’ starts with the wonderful trope of so many horror stories—finding an unusual book in a second-hand bookstore. Blackwood, a philology professor, takes home Ten Terrifying Tales but finds what’s written in the margins more interesting than the stories themselves. The ‘anonymous critic’ purports to know enough about black masses to suggest the description in the book is inaccurate. Blackwood is amused by this, until he turns around and sees a row of letters written across the blank wall behind him. After that the words come after him. This is a clever and satisfying mirror within mirror story.

P. M. Newton’s story ‘The Local’ also uses a horror/mystery staple—small (almost empty) pub in the country, the out-of-towners who come in for a drink, the strange stories, a mysterious figure who seems to know more than he should about bizarre weather phenomena, the people who don’t listen to the warnings. Newton builds a hot, fetid atmosphere effectively.

One of my favourites in the book is the beautiful story by Marion Halligan ‘Her Dress was a Pale Glimmer’. The setting for the story is a simple one—dinner in the garden of a restaurant with a father and his two grown-up daughters—but the description of the girls’ dresses, the beauty of the evening as they begin their meal, and the lusciousness of the food imbues the scene with a fairytale feel.

The sun was low in the sky, nearly setting, shining under the branches into [my father’s] eyes but he said it didn’t matter, it would be gone in a minute. It took longer than that but finally it went down behind the mountain with very little colour, the light became pearly grey and the candles winked in their little glasses.

The beauty is muted because they are sad. The mother has disappeared some time ago and they don’t know whether she is alive or dead. Then one daughter gets a cryptic, yet lovely, message on her phone and all eyes are on the empty chair at their table.

The achievement, and the satisfaction, of these stories is that they take the everyday, the quotidian, and slowly and relentlessly turn it into anything but.

www.goodreads.com/review/list/16022645-helen-bookwoods

Win a copy of The Great Unknown

Good Reading Magazine is running a competition to win one of 10 copies of The Great Unknown. Click here to go to the website. The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This collection of strange and spooky stories was perfect reading for the lazy week between Christmas and New Year, providing a dark antidote to the forced cheeriness of the season … Contributors to the anthology were invited to write about the fantastical, uncanny, absurd, or, as editor Angela Meyer  notes, ‘even just the slightly off’ … While the nineteen stories are diverse in style and content, this shared focus on the strange gives the anthology a pleasing coherence that many collections of short fiction lack … The combined effect of the pieces … reminded me of the pleasures of those puzzling and troubling moments in life, and in fiction, when logic is defied and image and association are required instead.

– Rachel Roberston Australian Book Review March, 2014.