Short stories, I’ve decided, are the ideal reading matter for breakfast, so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been engrossed in Knitting and other stories, which contains a selection of stories from this year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition. The competition is new, having been offered for the first time last year. According to the Margaret River Press’s website, there were 260 entries. This book contains 24 of them, including of course the winner and runner-up, and four highly commendeds.
The collection takes its title from the winning story, Knitting, by Barry Divola. Divola is one of the only two names I recognise in the book, the other being Jacqueline Wright whose first novel, Red dirt talking, was published last year. Knitting is a rather apposite title because most of the stories are about characters whose lives are unravelling – or have unravelled – in some way. And not all manage, by the end of their stories, to knit themselves together again, which is realistic even if it makes us readers feel a little unravelled ourselves!
As I was reading the stories a few things became apparent. Most of them are by women (20 of the 24 in fact). Does this represent the gender ratio of stories entered? Not that it matters, but it’s interesting, partly because it also means that, with a few gender-crossing exceptions, most of the stories focus on women. I noticed some recurring themes, about which I’ll write more below. And, I became aware, through connections between theme, character and/or setting, that the order of the stories had been crafted. Rossiter’s introduction, which I read after finishing the book, clarified that he had indeed grouped stories together. I think it enhanced the reading. There is always a jolt when you move from story to story, particularly if you read them without a break. Grouping them not only lessens the jolt but somehow encourages the brain to think beyond the immediate story. Karen Lee Thompson who has also reviewed this book feels quite differently about “contrived” ordering.
Another thing I noticed was that the majority of the stories seemed to be told in first person. Fifteen of them in fact. One is told in second person, making eight in third person. Does this matter? Probably not. First person can provide a level of intimacy that you don’t quite get with the other voices and I enjoy that. But, when you read one after another, no matter how well written they are, all the I, I, I can feel a bit tedious, a bit self-involved. This is not a comment on the individual stories so much as on the impact of the whole. Fortunately there are some lovely third person stories in this collection to break up the I-ness! And Amanda Clarke, in “The girl on the train”, uses the second person effectively to convey the dissociation experienced by a woman grieving over her daughter’s death. Describing her grief as “a vicious sort of cling wrap”, she is both trapped in and standing apart from herself. The “you” voice captures this beautifully.
Now to that old problem of how best to review a collection. For this one, I think the best approach is through its themes, and I’ll start with the one that stood out for me – grief, grief for people who have died, or for broken relationships or lost opportunities. Kristen Levitzke’s “Solomon’s Baby” about a baby’s death is particularly wrenching, but there are stories about grandchildren and grandparents (Vahri’s “I shine, not burn” and Louise D’Arcy’s “Down on the farm”) and people grieving for lost time and opportunities (Jacqueline Winn’s “The bitter end”), to name just a few. Other recurring themes are memory, growing up, ageing and, either explicitly or implicitly, time. Jacqueline Winn’s “The bitter end” starts:
Let’s not fool ourselves, time is not something to be negotiated. Time passes through us or we pass through time. No second thoughts, no second chances.
Family and family relationships are common subjects. In many stories, a parent is missing – either through death, or separation – creating a gap that can have lasting ramifications. One of my favourite stories in the collection is JS Scholz’s “Focus” about a young boy who’s on the run with his mother from his abusive father. Seen as a “hopeless” student who can’t “focus”, he uses his initiative to carry out a subversive action which shows his true character. In another favourite story, Kathy’s George’s cleverly named “A bend in the road”, the temporary absence of the father creates a tension between a mother and son. The daughter, though, sees the real issue:
“The family is a board game, a game with a missing piece … and nobody can play the game without the missing piece. Not properly anyhow.”
In some stories, it’s the chance meeting of strangers which throws light on the protagonists’ situations. Amanda Clarke’s second-person-story is one of these. In Kerry Lown Whalen’s “Notes in a scale” and Bindy Pritchard’s “The bees of Paris” the strangers are also neighbours.
While most stories are about character and family relationships, not all are. One such is John Dale’s “Expressway” which satirises the need to believe. It’s the story of a smudge on the wall of the Cahill Expressway which Francesca Lombardo believes is an image of the Virgin Mary. This sets in train a series of events including the removal of the section of the wall to Darling Harbour “which had better facilities and all day parking”. The government, talk shows, scientists, and social media are all targeted in this fun but pointed story about, at best, our desire for miracles and, at worst, our gullibility.
There is some lovely writing here, but I’ll just share two short examples. Dorothy Simmons describes the bush in her story, “Off the map”, about a young girl who is an orienteering champion:
All the little movements: lizard flicker, goanna slither, leaf rustle, sleek silvery trees posing beside slouching shaggy grey ones; cicada hum, magpie trill, whip bird …
The other is Paulette Gittins’ description in “Playing with Ramirez” of a gang of children coming down a Melbourne suburban street:
Down the street towards me a vaulting, whooping gang in stripes, red and black, blue and white, shrilling, colliding, hilarious; black-haired, scrawny, curly and nimble, they poured past.
As with any collection, some stories touched me more than others, but all have something to offer, something to say, about living and surviving in a world that for many, as Divola writes in the title story, “is too sharp [with] edges everywhere”. A most enjoyable read.
For other reviews of this collection which highlight some different stories, check out Karen Lee Thompson (in her review mentioned above) and Anne Skivington.
Richard Rossiter (Ed)
Knitting and other stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition 2013
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2013
(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)