New Australian Stories, part II.
I’m several stories further through, but at time of posting I seem to have put the damn book down somewhere so I can’t check quotes and so on for the later ones. Here are the two I have written up at the moment.
“Nightshade” by Meg Mundell
And men. Have you ever watched one sleeping and wondered where his dreams, and his wages, might lead him? Fathers, brothers, lovers: good as their hearts may be, they’re all drawn from the same pool, and the world grants them licence for all manner of misdeeds. Kind men fall prey to strange desires. Decent men look away when bad things happen. Not one of us is innocent.
Port-Wine Annie preys on drinking men around the Melbourne docks – the time would be somewhere in the nineteenth century. She has a tincture that mixes with liquor and will send a man unconscious for hours. She’ll drug her mark, or buy him off someone who’s drugged him for her, load him into her little boat, the Belladonna, “a vessel so narrow you’d barely notice her, an ageing lady with slime on her belly and a slow leak somewhere near her centre”, and row across the bay to meet with her brokers. By the time they awake they’ll have been sold into service on a ship, well out of reach of land and whatever life they used to lead before they took a drink with Annie. But tonight is different. There is something about the boy she has taken tonight: a soft-skinned, soft-handed young one who smiles sweetly in his sleep. As she rows him to her buyer Annie starts to watch him, and wonder about him. Annie is tough, and she has a deep bitterness toward the world and its men. She tells herself over and over again that she lives in a dirty, broken world of wrongdoers and compromises. But as she takes this boy to his fate we start to see that that bitterness is partly something she has cultivated in herself, as an excuse: nobody, she repeats to herself, nobody is innocent. These men cannot help but have done something to deserve this, no matter how pure they look. The battle with herself mounts as she meets her buyer and begins to trade this boy’s life away. If this unexpected tenderness manages to eat away the cold-hearted rationalisations she uses to function, what will she do? At the end, Port-Wine Annie does what she has to.
Mundell has given Annie a remarkable voice: powerful, knowing, with a deep world-weariness and that bitter note that never decays into affected cynicism – reading the story I never doubted that Annie had earned every cold thought she laid out on the page. Stories like this one are vulnerable to gear-crunching, shifting too obviously between the narrative of what Annie’s doing and the exposition that fills in why she’s doing it, but here the transitions are smooth and the elements sit together seamlessly. The way Annie makes her living, what has happened to her in her past, the way she sees the world and what she has to do to survive are all intimately bound up, they grow out of and reinforce each other, and all these elements reach a final, wrenching harmony at the conclusion when Annie almost manages to persuade herself she was right to reject what might be a chance at grace. Almost.
“The Art of Convalescence” by Amanda Lohrey
There was some race caller with the usual nasal twang, then a program about new car design, an interview with a politician and, finally, music. Not music she was accustomed to but classical piano music, a great tumultuous wave of it, ripping out across her bedsheet, rippling across her body so that she subsided again into her pillows and just lay there, surrendering to it, allowing the tidal surge of it to flow through her veins.
Toni is urban, early-middle-aged, married, frightened. We meet her on her way to the hospital, fretting over admission bureaucracy during long waits in shabby reception rooms. Flashbacks tell us why: there’s something wrong with her ovary. Could be a cyst, could be a tumour. The tests have told her she needs surgery, but no more. We follow her downward, through the operation and the brusque, badly-managed hospital stay that follows it, and then back upward, as she settles in at home for her recovery and discovers the Sydney Piano Competition on the radio. Listening day after day Toni becomes a devotee, learning about the contestants, hearing and feeling their music, finding her way out of the emotional darkness of the operation as she waits for the final word on what was wrong and whether she’s now in the clear. In the final scene, weeks later, we watch her sitting in the sun on her balcony, putting on headphones to listen to recordings of the competition once again.
New Australian Stories has been a very strong collection so far, and I expect it to continue to be, but I have to say Lohrey’s story is the first real weak point for me. The story has some distinctive, memorable flashes: the early scenes do a very good job with the fidgety tension/tedium of a big hospital’s pre-op processing, and the story’s minor characters are evoked carefully and deftly. Toni’s husband never seems to be much more than a cipher, but her friend Cathy pays a well-meaning but nervous visit early in the story that stuck with me, and although her surgeon only appears in a series of glimpses, those cumulative glimpses created a depth to him that made for a pleasing surprise when I read his later scenes and realised how much I’d taken to him. That’s clever work.
But the story’s good points are outweighed by its bad. I like the basic structure: the shadow of the illness, the light and music of the convalescence, but the way it’s strung together is too rickety. The story of the operation and recovery seems to want to be a firm narrative, but the elements don’t tie together enough to flow properly. The story presents a little like a model whose parts are strung together with wire instead of actually assembled: each part is where it’s meant to be in relation to the others, and you can see how they’re supposed to fit together, but in fact they’re rattling about with daylight where smooth joins are supposed to be. The music element, in particular, feels rather bolted on, which is a worry given that we’re being asked to believe that this is something that becomes so vital to Toni’s life. Lohrey’s style doesn’t help. She tends to tell rather than show, which tends to leach the emotion out of what should be a very emotionally powerful story. It also makes Toni hard to get to grips with as a character: we’re lectured by the narrative on how she’s feeling, but it’s like being taken into the next room and having things explained to us while Toni herself is absent. Lohrey needed a smoother, more immersive, less consciously “writery” a style to pull this story off and I don’t think she managed it.
The next few stories are stronger. Hopefully I’ll have time to post on them soon.