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Baggage is a new collection of Australian speculative fiction to be launched in conjunction with the WorldCon in Melbourne at the start of next month.  It’s edited by author, scholar and CSFG colleague and friend  Gillian Polack and published by Eneit Press.  The theme is a very powerful interest of Gillian’s: baggage, the beliefs, the reactions, the attitudes our lives and surroundings load us up with, that we so often don’t even realise we’re carrying.

As part of the Baggage blog tour, I’ve been lucky enough to get one of the stories to read in advance: “Hive of Glass”, by another fellow Canberran and friend Kaaron Warren.  Kaaron’s the author of Slights and Walking the Tree for Angry Robot, as well as a great wealth of short stories which have been collected in The Grinding House, The Glass Woman and the upcoming Dead Sea Fruit.  I’ll be talking with Kaaron in the next post, but for now let’s take a look at the story.

Note: while “Hive of Glass” doesn’t rely on a big twist ending, there are some developments in the story that work well as surprises.  I’ll try to be as circumspect about them as I can here, but if you want to come to the story completely fresh you might want to come back to this post after you’ve read it.

Sean Miller Skelton shaved his fingernail cuttings into dust and stirred them into the apple-cinnamon muffins.  He’d been up since 5am as he was every day, even on the weekends.  He liked to have the cafe open and ready by 7, for the shift workers and for the drifters… He stirred a few drops of his blood into the quiche mix and added chopped tomatoes, parsley from the kitchen window box and a pinch of pepper.

It’s a little town somewhere deep in inland Australia.  We never find out the name, but we find out enough about it.  It’s small, it’s hot.  There’s a freeway, a cafe (which I’m personally sure some of the older residents still refer to as the “milk bar”), a church, a mixture of white and Aboriginal families, an annual Anzac Day service at the little war memorial, a branch of the Country Women’s Association.  A slow, spacious, orderly place.  Sean has lived here since he was a child, his father an English immigrant from a little town that’s not there any more, who came to town and sold Bibles to make ends meet.  Sean has fitted himself into the town, become part of its life and its little rhythms.  But as much as he seems to wish it this isn’t the place that defines him.  Little by little in the story we find out about the place that does, and what happened to it.

Sean carries his father’s village with him; through him, the village stays alive.  He didn’t want it, doesn’t like it, it’s something his father tried to spare him.  He has the villagers looking out through his eyes, their mocking and ugly voices in his ears.  They swirl around him and fill his life up with their resentment and contempt.  The story is of what they do to Sean’s life, and all the ways he tries to deal with them.

There’s so much packed into this story that I’m not sure where to begin with it.  The structure is beautiful, taking three narratives – Sean’s life, Sean’s father’s life and the story of the village and weaving them through each other with subtle assurance, each one building and informing the main story and setting up the next narrative beat.  It took a second reading to realise exactly what a richness of information has been built into the story, and how deftly and subtly it builds up, never feeling rushed or busy.  The story establishes its central defining contrast, that of Sean’s terrible, haunted inner life versus his placid outer one, and comes back to strike notes from it in many different ways.  The evocation of the old town’s relationship with the sea and the inland heat of the new one.  The gentleness and kindness Sean shows and is shown, against the shrill, squabbling venom of the ghosts.  There’s a deeper insight into our personal baggage to be taken away from that, if you want it: anyone with even a mild streak of introversion will relate to the story of someone who goes quietly and amiably through their day while inside them is this great, yammering swirl of words and images that nobody else will ever know about.  That separation can be a comforting thing if you want it, but Sean doesn’t.  His baggage makes him alone, alienated from the life he wants.  “His ghosts held him back,” the story tells us.  “Anything he gained, they took.”

Warren is a versatile writer who knows when to keep her prose quiet and transparent and let the scene she has imagined speak for itself, and when to make her prose into music:

Sean’s father, Big John, big spaghetti-sucking whisky-spewing pain-dealing John, did not die as he should have done.  He didn’t die dreaming of water in the desert, or as a murderous hero at war.  He didn’t die empty-bellied amongst the starving, or of rotten limbs or while saving a worthless life.  All of which would befit the only surviving son of an only surviving son.  He did in his armchair, from a chutney and cheese sandwich lodged in his throat and no one to help him slap it out.

The stylishness of the writing is never laid on too thick but serves the overall rhythm of the story, slowing it down so that we can linger over the particular moment that we need to see.  Then the style eases again, becomes plainer and faster, moving us on.  I wanted to find this story untidy – it doesn’t seem to me to have a neat, classical structure of introduction, build, twist, you know the formula – but the pacing of the prose is so well done that I can’t find a single part of the structure that seems out of place.

I’m also conscious that I’m getting to the late stage of the review where I’m supposed to talk about what didn’t work, and that really I should find some negatives to reassure you that this isn’t a slick little marketing hagiography for a friend’s story.  But on the other hand, I’m not being true to the story if I hunt through it for things to carp about to present a superficially balanced review.  Other people’s impressions may vary; for me this is a powerful and beautifully constructed story by a remarkable writer at the top of her form.

Coming up: a brief interview with Kaaron Warren.