“Bad coffee can only keep you company for so long at four a.m. in a bus depot.”
All of the characters in Janine Alyson Young’s debut collection seem as though they would immediately recognize the truth of that. They all seem to have a spot of the drifter in them, even if they seem to be set in one place for the duration of a particular story.
But, then, one does not have to have been in a bus depot at 4am to understand that bad anything, not only bad coffee, isn’t much company in the wee hours of the morning.
(I can understand that, and I’ve never been in a bus depot past midnight, and I’m not sure a donut shop at 6am is the same.)
There is, however, something worn and lonely about these women and, yet, other aspects of their experience (for instance, their curiosity, their determination) cannot be discounted.
The sisters in the opening story work on a ranch in Australia, one as a comber and the other as a shearer. The scant workplace details are fascinating, but the focus in the story is on relationships, between the sexes and between siblings and between parents and children.
“For once I reckon I’m the better-looking one even though I’m shorter and my face is rounder. We’ve got the same beer-coloured hair and tiny teeth, but everyone could always tell us apart.”
The descriptions situate the characters in recognizable surroundings. And often the details revolving around character and setting reveal important dependencies (or independencies, as the case may be).
“There’s a line of ants above the dresser. They weren’t there yesterday. This sort of thing is our problem now.”
Although of varying ages, the main characters here are determining alliances and looking for places and people in the world that they can trust.
“Most of the girls we grew up with have kids and boyfriends they think are deadbeats. If I had to put my money on any of them, I’d choose their men. The guys might be bad, but at least they don’t pretend otherwise.”
Much of the action is internal, and the dialogue (inner and outer) verges on the mundane, as the characters wrestle with quotidian decisions, which seem large at the individual level but which are recognizable human struggles between love and loss, petty when viewed in the wider context of a full lifetime of connecting and disconnecting.
“Sometimes she thinks about leaving Jonah, or at least what it would look like to leave. He wouldn’t be surprised. Or maybe he would. She used to worry about him. He was gone so much, for so long. If he called one day to announce he wasn’t coming back, she wouldn’t be shocked.”
The setting is of vital importance to each of the stories in Hideout Hotel. Although not often overtly named, there is a clear understanding of place, often transmitted to readers through a collection of details which conspire to create an idea without resorting to map coordinates.
“There were huskies all over the place. I bent down and patted them as I passed. They were panting and tufts of hair came off on my fingers, even though the sun wasn’t hot, just high up there and endless.”
Sometimes the sense of place is openly named, and the attention paid to sketching the scene is more about the human community than the landscape and its natural inhabitants.
“The village, as it was called, was the grocery store, a café, a movie rental place, some kitschy hippy stores that were only open in the tourist months and a cold beer and wine. There was a pub, small restaurant and other grocery store on the other side of the island by the marina but that was about it.”
One remarkable aspect of this collection is the tendency to vacillate between the bleak and the possible without bold identifiers. Sometimes the narrators are openly challenged in some way; an aspect of their life has been turned inside out and upsidedown, and they are struggling to fin their way out of a seemingly grim place.
“These sorts of days always strike me as dishonest. Everything is extroverted all of a sudden. I want to know what was so bad about the winter. I want to know why we should all be happy that the flowers are out. I don’t understand what’s so great about the flowers. There’s no soul to spring; everything is thin and bland and weak.”
And, yet, even when the situation is sorrow-soaked and the burden of disappointment heavy, the weight of these stories settles lightly upon readers. Like the couch on the cover, it might not be polished, not even slightly pretty, but there is comfort to be had there nonetheless.
Contents: Bushfire, Greyhound Special, Once It Breaks, Sung Spit Part One, Sung Spit Part Two
Kathy Page’s Paradise and Elsewhere (2014)
Ranging in length from a few to many pages, these stories consider familiar and fresh landscapes. As comfortable in the mythic as in the concrete, Kathy Page gives readers’ expectations a good shake.
Twins die and trees live. Kissing is forbidden and thievery is encouraged. Strangers are intimates and sisters are strangers.
“A generation of greedy travelers, living in the last days and wanting to see it all, the world as onion, layer on layer going back beneath today’s crisp, dry skin.”
Readers travel through these tales, peeling back their skins, peering beneath sometimes greedily but sometimes reluctantly.
Some of the events chronicled are harshly disturbing, some are gently subversive. The storyteller’s voice is consistently assured and seductive.
Contents: G’Ming, Lak-ha, Of Paradise, The Ancient Siddanese, Low Tide, My Beautiful Wife, We the Trees, Clients, Lambing, Woodsmoke, I like to Look, Saving Grace, The Kissing Disease, My Fees
Divided into three parts (Substrata, The View from Here, and The Forces of the Earth), these twelve stories explore the fundamental layers of relating, the unanticipated trajectory, the joins and dead ends of life’s journey.
“I’m an archivist,” says one character, so “I know the value of documents and the excitement of finding a window on the past through someone’s handwriting”.
Readers might imagine Mary Soderstrom’s approach to writing to be similar. The stories are frequently preoccupied with the past viewed through a fresh lens, a narrow window on a wider landscape.
Lust and circumcision, volcanoes and mines, injuries and near-misses: Desire Lines considers the many ways in which wanting intersects with losing.
Heightened emotion is harnessed in prose which is clear and precise, and though nearly always bloodless, these stories will leave marks on their readers.
Contents: Ancient Faults, On the Prelude to the Wedding of the Plants, Underground, Wrong Address, Trepidation of the Spheres, The Ugly Baby, Blood Rites, Russian Olives, Bass Line, Open Window, Madame Pele Is Not Amused, Leaving
A.L. Kennedy’s All the Rage (2014)
“Making readers happy is not a bad thing. Readers like screwing and manoeuvres.”
There’s a little of both in All the Rage, but more quiet contemplation of what makes relationships tick and what makes them go still.
The action is mostly internal and the tone measured, the language straightforward though sometimes stylized, humour simmering beneath. Sometimes descriptions pull readers into the story with sensory detail – the stitching on a tea towel or crushed biscuit beneath a shoe – but the prose is clean and uncomplicated.
Often a phrase or sentence commands attention, begging for a sticky note or flag, although the writing appears effortless. “Unsolicited early conversations made her tetchy as a maiden aunt facing down a squirrel.” (from “The Practice of Mercy”) “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter.” (from “Baby Blue”) “He didn’t want to hit her, he simply couldn’t shake his desperation to leave her marked.” (from “All the Rage”)
A.L. Kennedy has an eye for the moments that matter and whether one of these comprises the bulk of a story or a string of them is assembled to recreate a broader arc, readers are struck by the heavy emotional weight of love and loss.
Contents:Late in Life, Baby Blue, Because It’s a Wednesday, These Small Pieces, The Practice of Mercy, Knocked, All the Rage, Takes You Home, The Effects of Good Government on the City, Run Catch Run, A Thing Unheard-of, This Man