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Gretchen Shirm, Having cried wolf

November 10, 2010
Having cried wolf, book cover

Book cover (Image from Affirm Press)

I have come to the conclusion that short stories are the best holiday reading for me. After a day’s sightseeing followed by reading up on sights for the next day, I usually find I have little time left for my reading. Novels are hard to read under such circumstances, but short stories? Well, they are just the thing. And so, on our recent trip to Hong Kong, I took Gretchen Shirm’s first collection of short stories, Having cried wolf.

Gretchen Shirm is a new Australian writer who was awarded the D.J. O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship for Emergent Writers in 2009. The blurb on the back of the collection likens her to Olga Masters, Helen Garner and Beverley Farmer, and I can see that, but as I was reading the stories I kept thinking of Tim Winton‘s The turning. The obvious reason is because, like The turning, Having cried wolf comprises short stories that are connected by character and place. The fifteen short stories are set in (or deal in some way with) the fictional New South Wales coastal town of Kinsale, and several characters reappear throughout, sometimes in their own stories and sometimes in others. It is rather fun, actually, identifying these and picking up the thread of a story as you progress through the book. Despite this, though, the stories do, I think, also stand well alone.

While Shirm doesn’t focus quite so much as Winton does on the description of place, beyond, that is, conveying the sense of small-town life, her themes are similar: the challenges of small-town living and, particularly, of maintaining meaningful relationships. These themes, however – particularly regarding maintaining relationships – are also those of the aforesaid Masters, Garner and Farmer.

And so to the stories. I must say I enjoyed them – though they are not a particularly cheery bunch. Shirm’s writing is tight and sure, with none of the over-writing often found in first-timers. She writes in first and third person, in female and the occasional male, voices. The characters range from early teens to middle-aged and she captures them all well. Her subject matter includes coming-of-age, marriage and separation, sexuality, suicide and some uncomfortable morality. While many of the stories are interlinked, they are not organised in a totally chronological manner. For example, we learn in the first story, “Breakfast friends”, that Alice is separated from her husband, but in a couple of stories later, “The shallows”, we meet her with the boyfriend who later becomes her husband. This nicely replicates I think the random way we often find out about people in real life.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow discussion of the stories but just mention a couple to exemplify some features of her writing. “Small indulgences” for example is a first person story by a rather down-trodden wife. It perfectly encapsulates a woman who has almost, but not quite (as she refuses to colour her hair), subsumed herself to her husband’s needs – and it ends on a delicious if rather sad ironic note. Several of the stories end effectively on metaphors that are subtle but gorgeously appropriate. “Duplicity”, which is about the son of the woman in “Small indulgences”, ends with “There were still no lights on in the house, but by then Daniel was used to the darkness”. And “Breakfast friends” ends with:

The cicada shell is empty now, but inside it was once soft, malleable and not yet formed.

The meaning of that is clear when we read it, but gains added poignancy as we learn more about its characters in later stories. There are many other lovely expressions throughout the stories, such as

… she wants to pour the memory into a mould and leave it there to set.

Why can’t I think like that!

Shirm uses foreshadowing in many of the stories to convey suspense and move the plot along, but she’s not heavy-handed about it. It does mean though that the stories are similar in tone. In other words, this is not a collection of great tonal range but I don’t think that matters, because there’s enough variety and interest elsewhere. There are however a few grammatical oddities that jarred. In a first person voice they can I suppose be forgiven, but there were a couple in third person stories that did bother me. “Peter’s friends swum in the pool” just isn’t right. Is it okay if the voice is third person subjective and that’s how the character might speak? I’m not sure. I’m being pedantic though because overall this is fine confident writing with lovely insights into human behaviour. It does not read like a first collection – and I hope we see more of Gretchen Shirm.

Gretchen Shirm
Having cried wolf
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 4)
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780980637892
221pp.

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2010 3:51 am

    Welcome home! Apparently you continued to blog from remote environs. You fooled me. Cheers, K

    • November 10, 2010 3:56 am

      Thanks Kevin. Tricks of the trade! I only wrote one post on the road; the other was written beforehand and scheduled to post while I was travelling.

  2. Tara permalink
    November 10, 2010 10:19 am

    I have read this collection and agree with much of what you have said – apart from the unnecessary pedantry; I found many more literals in Sarah Waters’ ‘Tipping the Velvet’ but never saw those mentioned in a review…
    The stories really whisked me away from the grubby city life (which is also very well-described in the book) to the stifling coastal town. I’m intrigued to see what Shirm offers next!
    Regards,
    Tara

    • November 10, 2010 10:30 am

      Thanks for commenting Tara. Glad you concur re the quality of this. I was a little unsure because she’s new but was very impressed. I felt whisked away too. I’m never sure about mentioning these things in a review – are they down to the writer, the editor, the proofreader? But sometimes I think it’s worth saying if we notice.

  3. November 10, 2010 10:54 am

    Yep, terrific book. Best new Australian writer I’ve seen for a long time.

    Re errors, I’d say it’s down to more than one person: the writer for writing it, and/or the editor for missing it, and/or possibly the person at the publishing house whose job it is to take in proof corrections. But I’ve noticed in many places that the ‘swim / swam / had swum’ conjugation, as with ‘sing’ and other similar verbs, is going the way of the dinosaur. People don’t know and *sigh* don’t care.

    Yes it is worth mentioning in a review, especially on a blog where you can write at whatever length you like. I’m sure someone with your sharp eyes will have noticed that The Slap needed a good copy-edit on almost every page, and given its commercial success that error-fest fill have gone all over the world, unless they’ve cleaned it up for subsequent editions.

    • November 10, 2010 2:18 pm

      Thanks PC – for all of this. She is good, eh?

      And thanks for your professional comment on the editing issue. I did wonder about the swum/sung business. It’s one I drove home a bit with my kids, but I did wonder whether it was another one going down the drain – with, you know, things like “enormity”. I noticed a few errors in some of the Sydney University Classics and got back to the publisher with those as they were clearly OCR issues – still it would have been good if they’d been picked up before publication, but I think they are publishing those a bit more like print-on-demand so can fix them relatively easily before too many more get out.

  4. November 10, 2010 12:27 pm

    I wish you’d told me this discovery of yours before I took the mammoth Count of Monte Cristo to Japan for my holiday reading in 2006! 😛

    I think I find short stories more enjoyable when there are “threads”, as you’ve described here. And beautiful writing never hurts, either!

  5. Tara permalink
    November 10, 2010 2:16 pm

    Fair enough – I blame ebooks for eating into the proofreading budget 🙂

    • November 10, 2010 2:19 pm

      Oh Tara … I think a lot of things have eaten into the old quality control budget, and not just in publishing either.

  6. November 11, 2010 4:47 am

    These sound like interesting and well done stories. There seems to be quite a number of bloggers reading short stories lately and it is making me think I should read some too even though I don’t think of myself as a short story person.

    • November 11, 2010 8:57 am

      They are. I’ve always been a bit of a short story person though for many years didn’t read many except for the odd “special” collection like Tim Winton’s The turning. I never for example made a practice of reading short stories in magazines or journals. Somehow, when I’m reading them I’m not in the mood for a sudden piece of fiction.

      Anyhow, I think short stories are particularly good for two of life’s activities – studying and traveling. Like when you’re traveling you don’t always have the time and concentration to commit to a novel, that’s also the case I think when you are a student. It was in my student (late teens and early twenties) years that I first got into short stories. Think about it! Though your studies are nearly over now aren’t they?

      • November 13, 2010 4:41 am

        Oh yes, nearly over! I do fit in short stories now and then but they are not my go-to. Somehow if I am going to read shorter pieces I generally choose a book of essays. Maybe next time I try to opt for short stories instead.

  7. Sarah permalink
    November 12, 2010 9:01 pm

    As abig short story fan I accepted a review copy of this so am glad to see such a positive review (including a Winton comparison!) and comments. I’m reading the superb Alice Munro at the moment but must read Having cried wolf soon.

    There’s an interesting interview with Shirmhere.

    • November 12, 2010 10:03 pm

      Thanks for that Sarah. I’ll listen to it when I get back home – am away for the weekend – but am glad you are interested, and hope you’ll blog on it or comment back here when you’ve read it.

  8. November 13, 2010 9:16 am

    Stefanie … good for you. You must be feeling good. I like books of essays too — but don’t read them as much as short stories. And, I wish I remembered their content for longer than I often do!

  9. November 13, 2010 10:22 am

    I guess this is why I read genre fiction when travelling. I like to be engaged with a continuous story line that I can return to whenever I have time to fill in. There is nothing nicer than having a new Robin Hobb or Lois McMaster Bujold tucked in my hand luggage when stepping onto a plane (the only danger being that I might read it too fast and finish it two hours before the flight ends!) I find short stories quite difficult to read, because each story has a new set of protagonists to become acquanted with and a new plot line to follow. I generally don’t like novels that have multiple points of view for the same reason. Having Cried Wolf sounds interesting, though, with its interconnections.

    • November 13, 2010 11:05 pm

      Thanks Judith. I can understand that about genre fiction but I really don’t read it. I haven’t found any genres that really engage me that much. And I do know what you mean about short stories – I think you have to choose your short stories to make it work too. In other words, reading and travel is a bit of a challenge isn’t it? ON planes now I tend to watch the movies and solve the problem that way.

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