Sep 10, 2011
Affirm Press, 9780980790429 (Aus)
Reviewed by Rachel Edwards
Australia has seen an increase in the publishing, and the recognition of, short stories and their authors over the last few years. Cate Kennedy and Nam Le set the bar high, and Affirm Press are presenting reading audiences with some refined new voices through their innovative publishing of the ‘Long Story Shorts’ series (a gorgeously designed series of small format paperbacks).
Leah Swann’s book Bearings is the fifth in this series from Affirm Press. It’s an intense collection of stories of varying length, each with well-formed characters and a distinct voice. The stories vary profoundly in point of view and subject matter though they all have a similar style and examine similar conundrums about the human condition.
The first story in the collection, ‘Street Sweeper’ plays with the second person voice – a voice that is hard to embody effectively without grating didactically on the reader (and recently carried off with aplomb by Tesarsch in the new Australian novel The Philanthropist). The narrator is revealed, carefully, on page two of the story to be a young man who observes his faded hippy mother and her friends, and is on the cusp of adulthood. His observations of her and the events that follow gently augment all the characters to reveal mannerisms and foibles. This story truly glows.
‘The Easter Hare’ begins with an almost medieval description of a corpse hanging from a tree – juxtaposed immediately with a contemporary family walking through the bush. A jogger, a soon to be father, finds the corpse first and is able to warn the family before they reach the body, the body which has been seared to the jogger’s retina. This is a story about life and death – about the transitory. It captures a tiny moment that has vast consequences.
‘Silver Hands’ is, by far, the longest story in the collection. It is subtitled ‘A Novella’. Told in the first person, it is the story of a potter whose hands begin to ache. The character is also a mother who may or may not be losing her husband. There is so much to this story, nothing is simple, there are no smooth resolutions. For the reader, the confusion of human relationships, the completely unapparent ways that we interact, is told in a hearty manner and the mildness of the ‘resolution’ of the story does not impede the powerful telling of the story of human interactions.
The last story in the collection, ‘The Ringwood Madonna’ is a beautiful contrast, from the title onwards. The slightly flat premise of a disillusioned young middle-class mother who turns to art for salvation and respite from familial drudgery is given a twist when she begins to paint glowing Madonna iconography on a Ringwood underpass. She meets a young, lost graffiti tagger, who becomes the protector of the Madonna. The story tells of the transitory nature of art, the ability of art to transform not only the personal but the environment in which it is placed. It also tells a more traditional story of the awkward friendship between a young middle-class mother and this lost teenage boy.
Swann doesn’t make the stories easy or straightforward. They are far from clichéd. It is through nuance that characters are revealed. It is, strangely, the stories that are most traditionally structured (background, climax, resolution) that are the weakest – but even at its weakest points this book remains strong. Why is it that the resolution makes the story seem weaker? It may be because Swann is adept at reflecting back the confusing human condition – that her writing helps us to understand the vagaries of our existence.
Whether or not Swann set out to examine the strangeness of our time on earth, or whether she merely utilised these mundane and everyday interactions is not important. They have coalesced to create prisms for the reader to view the world in new ways. These are stories that resonate on a number of levels ranging from a good yarn to a harsh examination of human nature. They sing, sometimes discordantly and sometimes angelically, but always clearly. They are stories that resonate and pose as many questions as they answer.
Rachel Edwards is a broadcaster, blogger and bookseller. She has recently been appointed Emerging Editor of Islet, the online journal for emerging writers and visual artists which has grown from Island, Tasmania’s most established literary journal. She is the Executive Producer of her alter-ego, Paige Turner, who hosts the weekly Book Show on Edgeradio.org.au and blogs at paigelovesbooks.blogspot.com. On Twitter, she is @paigelovesbooks