Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: Seven Stories and Australia Day

These two books capture a profound diversity in contemporary Australian short story writing.
Seven Stories is a collection of new short stories from seven Tasmanian writers, published by the elusive Dewhurst Jennings Institute. The stories in Australia Day, by Melanie Cheng speak of a middle Australia told through slow burn suburban tales, an examination of some quiet lives in contemporary Melbourne. The Seven Stories, by contrast are set around the world, the seven writers similar only by dint of being Tasmanian.
The stories included in Seven Stories vary distinctly in voice and style and they roam widely. Some are experimental, some blunt, some beautiful. This is writing from a vastly different island than the one Peter Conrad fled with such critical alacrity in 1968 and this collection celebrates a strong and active writing community. This is modern Tasmania, there are no hackneyed representations of the deepest wilderness, no fetishisation of the wild gothic island. These have long been traits in work coming from Tasmania, with the landscape as a character itself. Next to the realism of Cheng’s dusty suburbs, Seven Stories is effulgent. It also contains some of the most exhilarating voices in contemporary literature in Australia. Without exception these stories transcend the fads and fashions of Australian literature, which, from an island perspective can seem like a banal Sydney-Melbourne banter. Seven Stories houses the genius brigade of writing in Tasmania.
Cheng, on the other hand, offers up the unrelenting burbs. She cracks open the characters of people living undramatic lives. She teases out the ramifications and ripples emanating from all sizes of decisions. It is Cheng’s attention to detail that carry these stories, along with the occasional fine turn of phrase, robust dialogue and reasonably developed characters. While Seven Stories has a lushness, this collection is all suburban aridity.

Australia Day contains some marvelous dexterity with language and a deft use of description – the unease felt about “wads of dollars pressed deep into waiting palms,” or “Celtic skin-papery stiff destined to sprout cancers like tiny horns,” or the expression, “the computer expires with a melodious sigh,” are perfect. The very human manifestation of grief in the story Things That Grow is delicately drawn. It’s about a recently bereaved widow who discovers herself pregnant and it is a visceral description of the experience of loss. The character has withdrawn from the world, from her family, she is carrying the feeling that death often brings to the living; one of purposelessness.

Cheng’s realism and straightforward prose also reveal the ugliness and crassness of Australian behaviour, and so much of what the expression ‘Australia Day’ increasingly, and ironically, connotes- a racism. Racism shoots through these stories casually and sharply. In the eponymous story, Australia Day, like a dog snarling in the background, racism hovers throughout. The new boyfriend, who is Chinese, taken to the family farm in the conservative rural hinterland. It is a not a subtle account, and the small minded values couched in a rough humour and gruff fa├žades are a familiar presence in many Australian towns.

Muse, which was included in Earthly Delights, Griffith Review’s Novella Project IV, is the best story in the collection. It is a gentle depiction of aging, and loss, the latter a recurring theme. These characters are wonderfully human, and the story beautifully carved, it is also a gentle depiction of a sweet sexual reawakening of an old man. It is also considerably longer than the others, and has more satisfying character development.
The subject matter and styles included in Seven Stories vary wildly. The Shy Birds by Emma L Waters exhibits an acute suspenseful realism in which she takes the reader alongside a couple walking on an East Coast beach. They meet an old fellow who offers to show them a nest, a beautiful nest. Is he genuinely friendly, or malevolent? The tension ebbs and flows with a perfect foreshadowing from the sound of gunshots (unrelated), and the nervous “pip-pipping” of the black and white birds.

Susie Greenhill was awarded the 2016 Richell Prize for her manuscript, The Clinking. She is back with her delicate prose, this time in a story that speaks of love and loss in a European war zone. If that seems like too big a theme for a short story, Greenhill’s increasingly deft hands handle these big subjects confidently and with beautiful use of language, especially when describing the sea and water ways. The Chaos of Life Beyond Death in the Outback by Adam Ouston is a rambunctious and exhilarating story of a man hitchhiking in the Outback, picked up by a zombie film making crew, who he eventually murders. Both Tasmanian stories, with nary a mention of horizontal scrub.

Also included is Michael Blake’s ‘Donny and Bucket on the Treeless Plain’ which completes the anthology. It is about two teenage boys making the break from their home town Ceduna, making a run for it. It is a liminal story, one that does not cover a journey, but a decision. Completing the seven are Ruairi Murphy, Robbie Arnott, who won the Scribe Non Fiction Prize 2014 and Ben Walter, an increasingly recognised writer of poetry and prose, as well as the editor of this collection, and the brains behind the Dewhurst Jennings Institute. The institute consisted of occasional gatherings of writers to share ideas. Invitations were by postcard only.
Different parts of the short story spectrum are represented by these two collections. Cheng’s Australia Day, with its clear, sometimes crystalline prose offers up the mundane and the middlebrow, which is not always a bad thing. The stories are tightly constructed with the company of some well drawn characters, but they are all in the same key.
Seven Stories, was called by Richard Flanagan at the recent Tasmanian launch “a significant book in Tasmanian letters”. This understates the importance of these writers in the national short story conversation. At least three of these writers have novels with major Australian publishers. This is a pivotal moment in Tasmanian letters.


  1. Excellent review Rachel - very well written. The Weekend Australian is my 'paper', too, which made it even more of a pleasure to read.

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Paige Turner November

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