Short stories, for me, are a way of easing myself back into reading following a severe reading rut. They serve as a reminder of what fiction can do, even in small doses, how words can shape images, emotions, thoughts. I took The Best Australian Stories 2010, edited by Cate Kennedy, with me on my recent trip and though at first only dipping in and out of the selection, by the end I threw moderation aside and was happily gorging myself on story after story. Of course, with an anthology like this it can be difficult to organize your thoughts coherently: do I look at it as a whole? Do I select one or two stories that I enjoyed and focus on them?
There are names both familiar and previously unheard of in this collection, unpublished stories are placed equally among those that have been retrieved from hallowed literary journals. These stories cover a wide range of emotional territory and styles, from the funny, the breathless, the painfully sad, the joyous moments, and the horrific. Given the restraints of the short story form however, these explorations of emotions never feel too exhausting or depleting.
Against the darkness, other faces from that shared past occur to my mind with stunning vividness. Even closer, thicker, than the dark is the heat. Another scorcher on the way. Somewhere out there a forest is burning, and a family crouching under wet towels in a bathtub, waiting as their green lungs fill with steam and soot muck. I test the coffee’s temperature. As often happens at this time of morning I find myself in a strange sleep-bleared funk that’s not quite sadness. It’s not quite anything. Through the trees below, the river sucks in the lambency of city, creeps it back up the bank, and slowly, in this way, as I have seen and cherished it for years, the darkness reacquaints itself with new morning.
- from “The Yarra” by Nam Le
My personal highlights, in bullet point form:
- Paddy O’Reilly’s “The Salesman” which, though working on accepted stereotypes of working class suburbanites as brute, racist and insensitive, plays with these expectations as much as it reinforces them.
- Karen Hitchcock’s “Little White Slip”, a nicely unromanticized look at motherhood and the expectations it places upon a woman’s identity, this story ruthlessly cuts through to the pain, the bodily changes, the heightened and sometimes irrational emotional battles and the hormonal impulses without the need to glorify the role of motherhood. Although I enjoyed it, the ending did feel a bit too “and they lived happily ever after”, which detracted somewhat from the powerful depiction.
- Nam Le’s “The Yarra”, probably the longest story in the anthology, is an involved tale about the experience of second-generation Vietnamese men involved in brutal acts of violence along Melbourne’s river. Le wonderfully captures the relentless heat of Melbourne summers which works towards heightening the internal struggle of the protagonist, Lan, whose brother has just returned home after a long jail stint. Both of them are forced to confront their violent past, its consequences and the strength and contradictions of their filial bond.
- Chris Womersley’s “The Age of Terror” is quietly horrifying. What at first seems to be a meditation on aging turns into something else entirely, and it wasn’t until after I finished reading this story that I began to put the pieces together, to see the comparison being made and realize how truly terrifying it is. A difficult, multivalent story that lingers for hours, days after reading.
- John Kinsella’s “Bats” is a lovely and strange story of vanity, youth and attraction. A girl and a boy watch a purple sunset over a mountain and he educates her on the fauna of the inland, culminating in a bat getting caught in her long blonde hair. This may be my favourite story of the collection, simple but rich.
- Antonia Baldo’s “Get Well Soon” is another strong contender for the favourite story though, a beautiful story on living with a family member suffering with depression, how it effects the entire family and exploring the limits of responsibility and the tenacity of faith.
Rebecca’s disappointed that I don’t live for these moments of rapture anymore. It’s true. I’m ordinary. I’ve accepted the inadequacies of living. But I can’t sit beside her forever and whisper that discovering the world is a matter of choice. I can’t remind her of the smile on her face when she wore that strapless sea-green dress to her formal. I can’t tell her she’s so alive she just might have to die while I, half-dead, can afford to go on living. And so I leave her, a white frame twisted on a bed, those sharp-angled thoughts cutting into her brain.
- from “Get Well Soon” by Antonia Baldo
It becomes increasingly obvious that guilt features heavily in this selection: the guilt over past mistakes, past sins, guilt over irreversible accidents and damage, guilt over failed relationships, guilt of not living up to social expectations. Is this guilt something that is deeply embedded in the national literary consciousness – from the vicious blights on our national history, to our past as a colony of convicts, a quick overview reveals much to feel guilt over- or is it merely a quirk of editorial selection? Whatever the cause, toward the end of the anthology this recurring theme does begin to feel needlessly repetitious. The guilt is felt, but rarely are actions taken to appease this guilt, these stories prefer to wallow in the personal regrets, as though acknowledging it is repentance enough.
My knowledge of the Australian literary scene is not sufficient enough to comment on any glaring omissions, but The Best Australian Stories 2010 is overall a strong collection, showcasing a wide variety of contemporary Australian storytelling talent, offering readers a number of names to look forward to reading more from in the future.