Lisa is waiting to pay her vehicle tax at her local motor revenue office, thermoprinted number in hand, trying to find the least bad plastic seat. As she begins her interminable wait, she looks around and observes her fellow man. Fellow man doesn't come out looking good. Then Lisa notices that someone is reading a magazine article written by her friend Olivia about nanoparticles.
This is a short story that looks at ordinary people and how they look based on a single occasion in a mundane setting. The situation is familiar to all of us, is closely structured based on the serial calling of numbers; and there are clear social protocols against interacting with one another. People may watch one another but they don't interact. It's a story about constraint and boredom, with Olivia representing a bright, glamorous alternative existence. With just a bit more application, Lisa could have been Dr Lisa, being in magazines instead of the motor revenue office queue.
In the end, Lisa discovers that, like nanoparticles, small things, small gestures can make a big difference.
This is a delicate story and the simplicity of the language shines. Lisa and the people in the queue are so believable. The setting rings perfectly true. But by observing and recording, Charlotte Wood gives them depth and meaning. This story is only a short half hour's read but well worth it. ****0
Austin North is an English teacher, determined to make poetry relevant to his pupils. He is under no illusions that he could have been a poet himself – he knows he could have had the same experiences as the great WWI poets and written nothing more profound than a postcard home. But he still loves his subject and wants to share that love with the kids.
Blackberries is a strange story about cultural values and expectations. Austin is well used to resisting improper relationships; he is happy at home and seems to be competent at work. Yet there’s something missing. Maybe it’s not composing poetry or the bombs or the pathos – but Austin still seems to want something more, some kind of adventure. To an extent, he seems to have found this in his friendship with David Malwai, a South Sudanese migrant. He also finds himself captivated by a new student, a teenage South Sudanese girl who seems to have a gift for distance running. After years of following the straight and narrow, Austin seems to open his eyes to new possibilities.
There is an underlying theme of cultural differences. Austin represents old Australia and the South Sudanese represent new Australia. How far should the new go to assimilate with the old? At the same time, Austin raises the issue of the young Aboriginal people, many of whom have issues with crime and substance abuse. Of course, the European migrants to Australia did not look to assimilate with the Aborigines. Now there is a debate about whether Aboriginal people should be expected to assimilate with the European migrants. Why should they, they ask, given that they were there first and so are not the problem.
It’s a complex little story that doesn’t present easy answers or glib truisms. Instead, it leaves us considering their own attitudes and, in all probability, recognising some of the contradictions in our own minds. *****
Vincent Duncan is a novelist. He was first published at the age of 23; he has never had a rejection; he has a cushy job teaching creating writing at the local university and an annual tour of the US to look forward to. Duncan likes fast cars and fast women. He’s a success.
Ithica In My Mind is a short story of a lazy man who has not noticed that the world has changed around him. People (both punters and publishers) are no longer queuing up to buy his books. He is no longer the star draw in his university department. His poor choices in wives and investments have left him in a precarious place. There is some insight into the life and mindset of the famous.
This story is a well told moment of realisation. All Duncan’s chickens come home to roost and, as they do, the reader discovers what stuff he is made of – whether he has the inner resilience and agility to adapt to the new situation.
This is a very brief work and, unlike Peter Temple’s longer works, is not in the crime genre. It is quite stylised and there’s not much development or depth of characterisation. It’s a bit of a one trick pony. But as a bit of fun, the story works well, the pacing is right and there is pay-off at the end. ****0
Manuka is the story of Tom and Reuben, a couple of Australian chancers who set out for New Zealand to teach the locals how to break in horses. It’s set in the 1970s, but with the men finding themselves living out of swags in a remote camp, trying to clear the land of manuka scrub, it could have been at any point in the last 200 years.
This short story starts out as a battle between the men and the elements – the cold seeping through the enclosed gorge is a far cry from the hot and open plains of Australia – but soon becomes a battle between the men and their own minds. Isolated from all external intervention, seemingly abandoned by the farm owner, they have to deal with a hopeless situation by whatever means come to hand.
For a short story, the pace is slow. The focus is on the descriptive, creating the setting and atmosphere. It is claustrophobic and dark. The threats and perils build slowly but are real. The story concentrates on the two men as people rather than as actions and deeds. The result, at the end, is a memorable piece of writing that feels bigger than the sum of its parts.
The story opens with the statement that it was written in prison in 1976. This was a strange and enigmatic preface and pairs with a similarly mercurial coda. On first reading, this gave the impression of creating a fussiness that was not needed. But on reflection, it leaves the reader wondering… *****
E-publishing allows short stories to be published as their own, stand-alone products. Sticks, Stones is a very short example.
We are introduced to Marianne, a travel agent who pressure-sells holidays to families visiting travel fairs. Broadly, she likes her job; she has friends who are just about close enough for her needs; she has a family and knows her children's friends and their families. It's not an exciting life - a counterpoint to the holidays she sells - but it works for her.
The story hinges around her collecting her son Jack and his friends from football and seeing him taunting a girl with Downs Syndrome. It's confronting; it makes Marianne ask herself whether she even knows her son. Like any parent, she starts to ask herself why she bothers, whether she actually hates her son.
Marianne is a real person living in Melbourne's bland northern suburbs. She is perfectly created - right down to little details such as the car stereo jammed permanently on Gold FM (where our would be if I had my way). She shares thoughts and sentiments that most parents will have encountered but never dared to voice. That makes this story quite reassuring.
Credit is due to Allen and Unwin for publishing this story - one of five short stories by Australia's leading contemporary writers. I hope the project was as enjoyable for the writers as it was for the readers.