Tag Archives: Alice Munro

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 2


This is the second and final instalment of a retrospect on books I read last year that continue to impress me months afterwards. The previous post discussed several works of non-fiction, but most of my reading in 2013 was fiction – mainly Australian. A few novels from other parts of the world still stir my imagination, most notably Herman Koch’s The Dinner with its unforgettably creepy narrator; Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with its strong narrative momentum and troubling theme that comes much closer to home than the exotic setting led me to expect; Susan Abulhawa’s heartbreaking evocation of Palestinian suffering, Mornings in Jenin; Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a powerful psychological study of World War 1 experiences; and Julian Barnes’s witty and cunning The Sense of an Ending. Nevertheless it was Australian fiction that attracted most of my attention, and several novels (plus some short story collections) have kept a tight grip on me.

It would be hard to forget the narrator of Toni Jordan’s lovely story Addition: hilariously and sadly compulsive, intelligently self-aware, Grace almost manages to wreck her chance of happiness – but despite the shadows of mental instability this is a comic romance, after all. Comparable in its affiliation with true romance, though focused on a less quirky protagonist, Deborah Burrows’s A Stranger in My Street blends the love interest with a murder mystery and an historical setting (Perth in the WW2 years) that is convincingly rendered. Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper is similarly set in Western Australia and partly in the same period, but its narrative structure is more complicated than in A Stranger in My Street, and what has imprinted itself most distinctly on my memory is the nostalgic elaboration of its descriptive detail.

The genre of Kathryn Heyman’s Floodline seemed at first a satirical blend of a Hollywood disaster movie with a Deep Southern evangelical morality play – except that the muddle-headed self-thwarting characters and the emotional troubles generated by their poignantly dysfunctional family relationships soon compelled me not only to believe in them but also to want the best for them. Convincing characterisation is also the main thing that sticks in my mind from Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a well-researched story of Norwegian whaling and Antarctic exploration in the 1930s: all three women at the story’s centre are distinctive and entirely credible.

The fine achievement of M.K Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans stems largely from its devising of an outlandish situation that is fraught with moral conflict and insoluble dilemmas, so that everything that unfolds from the brilliant narrative premise carries a sense of almost inevitable doom. ‘Brilliant’ is also an apt descriptor for Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, in which sentence after polished sentence sparkles with a mordant wit that often reminds me of Patrick White – though in retrospect that bright hard surface is more memorable than the interactions between characters.

During 2013 I read a number of short story collections, which by their nature are difficult to summarise although I still have a precise recall of several individual stories. Some of them were first published long ago: Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories (which I re-read every two or three years, and which I’ve discussed in a chapter of Narrative Exchanges) belong to the early 20th century, and Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of Fall goes back half a century. Mansfield’s are full of startling imagery, Hazzard’s are full of subtle perceptions, and both writers remind me that even the most economical form of narration can be capacious in its implications. The best pieces in two short-story volumes by Perth-based writers also made an impact on me last year and won’t be forgotten for a long while: Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky and Amanda Curtin’s Inherited. I’ve commented on both, along with Alice Munro’s Dear Life, in a previous post titled Brevity with Scope.

Amanda Curtin’s latest book is the outstanding novel Elemental, which for me (and many others, I’m sure) provided one of the most memorable reading experiences of 2013. Much of its enduring power comes from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch, but there is a great deal more to admire in the language of the text as a whole – every word counts, every sentence is perfectly balanced – as well as in the clever structure and in the vivid rendering of historical detail. Last year I also read Amanda’s previous novel, The Sinkings, which had been on my shelf since it appeared five years ago. (I’d delayed my reading of it when I became aware that its subject matter appeared to have something in common with a novel of my own that I was working on, and I didn’t want to be distracted or influenced by seeing how she had handled her story. As soon as I finished mine I read hers, and it turns out that I needn’t have worried: despite some similar ingredients, our novels are quite different from each other.) The Sinkings is a haunting tale; it depicts hardship, cruelty and loneliness unforgettably; and in my mind its most remarkable quality is the way it combines its unblinking realism with a deep compassion.

The main thing that sticks in my mind from Iris Lavell’s novel Elsewhere in Success is its insight into what can lie beneath the seemingly banal surface of suburban Perth. Most of the story’s foreground action is unspectacular and the characters are (as one of them says) ‘just ordinary people’ – which poses a considerable narrative challenge. But as deep currents swirl under them they thresh around, gasp for breath, and struggle towards something close to redemption.

I read a couple of novels by another Western Australian writer in 2013, and both have continued to give me plenty of food for thought. Nicholas Hasluck’s Our Man K and Dismissal are fine examples of political fiction grounded in historical fact – a genre that few novelists in this country have successfully grappled with. The central figure in Our Man K is Egon Kisch, a real-life Czech journalist who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Hasluck’s portrayal of Kisch emphasises his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (with whose own character ‘K’ Kisch becomes associated), and with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Dismissal is an absorbing tale of espionage, ethical dilemmas and personal disloyalties in Australia during the period from the 1930s to the fall of the Whitlam government. I can’t think of any other novelist so well equipped to write this kind of work.

So there it is – a mere glance back over my shoulder at residues of a year’s reading. The retrospect doesn’t extend to every publication I consumed last year but takes in about 30 books of various kinds (including those mentioned in the previous post) that for different reasons have lodged in my consciousness more than other things read during the same period. Two-thirds of them were written by women.

I wonder whether I’ll still recall the same aspects of the same books a year or two from now.


Brevity with scope: reading short stories

Over the summer holiday period I’ve been reading a fair number of short stories: some volumes by individual authors along with an assortment of contributions by different hands, and various pieces in newspapers and literary magazines. I’ve also been writing a few,  encouraged by the appearance of one of my stories in the North American journal Antipodes (December 2013 issue).


So the strengths and weaknesses of the short story form have been on my mind again. I say ‘again’, because many years ago I wrote a little book about this genre and tried to ponder its inherent possibilities and limitations.

To some readers, short stories often seem very slight, sketching a situation cursorily before arriving in haste at an inconsequential or contrived ending. Howard Nemerov expresses that view trenchantly:

Short stories amount for the most part to parlour tricks, party favours with built-in snappers, gadgets for inducing recognitions and reversals: a small pump serves to build up the pressure, a tiny trigger releases it, there follows a puff and a flash as freedom and necessity combine; finally a celluloid doll drops from the muzzle and descends by parachute to the floor. These things happen, but they happen to no-one in particular.

The formulaic artifice of two or three pieces in Best Australian Stories 2002, edited by Peter Craven (on my shelf for years, picked up again last week) may deserve that kind of dismissal. But most of them don’t. Sometimes our hurried habits of reading are at fault; skimming over the surface, we can miss latent implications. The story that moved me most in Craven’s anthology is Joan London’s ‘The New Dark Age’, and only on re-reading it did I see how much of its Chekhovian pathos comes from understated echoes in phrase and image. Its central character, George, is wearily trying to rediscover normality after emerging from the ‘long winter’ of a serious illness. But he is dogged by fatigue, deeper than physical, which prevents him from responding adequately to his unhappy wife Kristina or treating his faithful employee Ulla with the generosity she deserves. There are things he cannot express to them. The kind of music that has been central in his life seems now to take him through ‘a strange harsh landscape.’ Falling asleep as he listens to it, he dreams of snowy Russian streets; and afterwards he feels unable to tell Kristina or Ulla ‘that what he remembered most was the pull he felt, strong as love or nostalgia, to give up, lie down in the snow, and close his eyes.’

Small-scale prose fiction requires us to be carefully attentive to every phrase, every nuance. At its best it can have the subtlety and sustained intensity of a lyrical poem, suggesting much more than it makes explicit.

There are other fine examples of this in three books I’ve read recently:  Dear Life, by the Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, and two by Western Australian writers, Amanda Curtin’s Inherited (UWAP) and Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky (also UWAP). Each collection assembles 15 or more pieces, with some thematic interlinkages but considerable stylistic and structural diversity.


In Midalia’s wry and sometimes poignant stories, the historical and the geographical often come together uneasily with the personal to disconcert her characters. The first piece in the book, ‘Underground’, typifies this conjunction. Petra, the focal character, is a middle-aged Australian tourist whose experience of visiting Russia disappoints her romantic expectations. She’d wanted to feel ‘the grandeur of history’ but the reality of modern Russia strikes her as tawdry. The story’s title, which initially refers to Moscow’s famous metro railway with its ornate stations, comes instead to signify the subterranean chamber displaying Lenin’s embalmed corpse. Despite finding Red Square distasteful, Petra goes to see this mausoleum because she had promised her teenage nephew that she’d do so. Joining a sluggish queue, descending the black marble steps, she gazes at the waxy face and strange hands of the long-dead leader with a fleeting sense that Lenin himself looks perplexed, as if ‘lost to some dream of history.’ The ensuing conclusion doesn’t overreach. There’s no forcing of an epiphany – just the hint of a faintly modified apprehension of the world as Petra emerges from the tomb into daylight.


The genre of the short story form can lend itself well to the kind of narration where much of the action takes place inside someone’s head as an interior monologue. One of the most powerful stories in Amanda Curtin’s Inherited is ‘Cradle of Shadows’, in which the narrative foreground seems at first to comprise merely a woman’s reminiscences about her maternal predecessors, especially her great-grandmother. But folded into her rumination is a startling episode from World War 1, a tale of violence, pain, infanticide and guilt. Reflecting on the opacities of this episode and anticipating the consequences of a decision she herself has just made about her own pregnancy, the narrator recognises that in families the ‘burdens laid down by one generation must be shouldered by another.’


The distinctive qualities of Alice Munro’s short fiction are well described by Susan Sheridan in her review of Dear Life for the Sydney Review of Books. As Susan remarks, the characters seem ‘ordinary’ and ‘the situations they enter into are banal – marriage and adultery, conflicts between parents and children, ageing and its discontents, loneliness in many forms.’ But the artfulness that animates the stories is particularly subtle in Munro’s ‘use of point of view and her manipulation of narrative time.’ Their action often moves ‘backwards and forwards, apparently at random’ in such a way that meanings emerge bit by bit and behaviour is explained ‘only obliquely.’ A striking example is the story ‘In Sight of the Lake’, in which the final paragraph causes a reader to reframe the significance of everything that has gone before: the focal character’s meanderings turn out not to be quite what they seemed.

Oblique revelations, indirect disclosures, ambiguous insights – short fiction frequently has those features. We get only glimpses of what is going on in the minds of many of the characters who pass like shadows through the pages of Munro, Midalia, Curtin and other skilled exponents of this genre. And it’s precisely the lack of full access to whatever depths of emotion they may experience that can grip the reader’s imagination – because it evokes the ‘baffled curiosity’ we frequently feel in our dealings with people around us. The phrase ‘baffled curiosity’ comes from William James, the 19th-century philosopher who also coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ and whose brother was the great storyteller Henry James. William remarked that Henry’s stories give to us…

an impression like that we often get of people in life: their orbits come out of space and lay themselves for a short time along ours, and then off  they whirl again into the unknown, leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of our being.