Irma Gold’s* Two steps forward is, apparently, the last release in Affirm Press’s Long Story Short series. I have reviewed two others previously – Gretchen Shirm’s Having cried wolf and Leah Swann’s Bearings – but, before talking about this book, I must say how much I love the books themselves. I am starting to read eBooks. I recognise they are likely to be the future and they do offer advantages over print books. They take up less space, for a start. You can change font size to suit your eyes. And, eReaders have inbuilt dictionaries which can be useful when you are reading while out and about (or are just too plain lazy to get off your seat to find the dictionary). But, this doesn’t mean I don’t like print books – especially lovely ones to look at and hold like this Affirm Press series. I like their slightly smaller size and their simple, clear, modern design. The three I’ve read also have very stylish monochromatic covers. There’s little, in fact, not to like about them.
Now, though, the book. This is one of those short story collections, like Swann’s Bearings, that has its own title rather than one drawn from one of the stories within. I like that – and the title of this book, Two steps forward, is a particularly clever one, because of course it immediately calls forth the complete saying “two steps forward one step back”. This concept works well for the stories in Gold’s book.
Irma Gold is a writer and editor. She has been published in various journals, such as Meanjin and Island, but this is her first published collection. Well done her, because it’s an engrossing collection. Gold’s writing is clear and warm, and she demonstrates in this collection an ability to handle a range of voices and points of view. There are 12 stories in the book: five are told 1st person, two 2nd person, and the other five 3rd person. Her protagonists are mostly women, but there are a few male voices too. The stories could be described as “scenes from a life” (well, lives, really). Her characters include a single mother hoping for love (“The art of courting”), an empathetic woman working in a refugee detention centre (“Refuge”), a father experiencing his first access visit, after two years, with his 8-year-old daughter (“Tangerine”), an emotionally-neglected teen girl living in a caravan park (“Sounds of friendship”), an old homeless man (“Great pisses of Paris”), and so on. The characters are authentic. You know who they are, what they feel, and what they are confronting:
You notice how thin your lips have become, how the flash of greasy fuchsia looks almost crude. You pull at the loose skin on your neck, and the spongy puffs around your eyes filled with lines, the skeleton veins of a dead leaf. (“The art of courting”)
I want to touch him, but the space between us is fractured. (“Refuge”)
I compose sentences in my head, but none of them work. (“Kicking dirt”)
Says they can’t afford to waste cash on stuff they don’t need, though apparently alcohol is essential. (“Sounds of friendship”)
There’s a painful vulnerability to her characters, as they confront their particular challenges, such as visiting a terminally ill friend (“The visit”), facing a miscarriage (“The third child”), or trying to reconnect with a young daughter (“Tangerine”). Their lives are finely observed, so much so, in fact, that you feel you’ve been there – even if you haven’t. Their triumphs, when they have them, are hard won.
I also liked Gold’s use of imagery. It’s apt, evocative, and is not overdone or pushed too far – which suggests careful writing, good editing, or both:
A day leaking away with a spill of apricot. Air stung with lavender. (“The art of courting”)
… and Abby catches the cold-barrelled words Mick fires at her mother. (“Sounds of friendship”)
But it was all icing slathered over stale cake. (“The anatomy of happiness”)
The tone doesn’t vary much, but this doesn’t spoil the experience. The stories, overall, have a somewhat melancholic air, as the characters struggle to keep a forwards momentum in their lives ahead of a backwards one. And, there are touches of humour (mostly wry) and some occasional irony (such as a reference to our anthem’s “boundless plains to share” in “Refuge”) that provide relief.
Endings are always hard … at least that’s what E. M. Forster told us in Aspects of the novel … but Irma Gold has handled them well. Keeping with the title, most of her stories have more hope than not – but none are fully resolved. Like life really.
Two steps forward
Mulgrave, Vic: Affirm Press, 2011
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 6)
Also available in eBook format
(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)
* I was tickled to note in her Acknowledgements that Gold spent some time at Varuna Writers’ Centre.