Catherine McNamara, Pelt and other stories (Review)
It seems fitting that my first review of the year be for a book of short stories by one of this blog’s regular commenters, Catherine McNamara. I have reviewed McNamara before, her first published novel, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy. McNamara describes that book as commercial fiction. It is, to describe it differently, chicklit for the mature woman – and is a fun read. However, Pelt and other stories is a different thing altogether. It represents, McNamara has said, where her real writing love is – literary short stories.
You will hear from Catherine herself soon in the form of an author interview on the blog, but by way of introduction now, she is an Aussie expat who left Australia as a student a couple of decades ago. She now lives in Italy but has lived in other parts of Europe and for several years Africa. All this is reflected in her stories which have Australian, European and African settings. As with many short story collections, several of the stories have been published elsewhere, on-line and in print. Her story “Coptic Bride” was published in Giramondo‘s now-defunct, but admired, literary magazine Heat.
The first thing to say about McNamara’s writing is that it is not spare. Her exuberant use of imagery reminds me at times of the early writings of Thea Astley and another expat, Janette Turner Hospital, both writers who have reveled in colourful, figurative language, albeit to different purposes. Occasionally the imagery can feel a little overdone, but I love their freshness, love the risks McNamara takes. The next thing to say is that her subject matter tends to revolve around sex. The book is, after all, subtitled “tales of lust and dirt”. In McNamara’s work, sexual passion represents the best and worst of what life has to offer. And, given that there’s more drama in the worst or the problematic, it is this – in the form of violence, incest, jealousy and infidelity – that we mostly find in Pelt and other stories. Thirdly, McNamara mixes up her narrative voice. She uses first and third person, and she writes in a variety of voices, including, for example, a white gay male and a black female. This keeps you on your toes. You never know who the next characters will be, and where they’ll be from. I like that.
While Pelt and other stories is a collection, several stories are connected, which makes the order of the stories particularly interesting. I suspect ordering stories in a collection, which I discussed briefly in my review of Knitting and other stories, is one of the trials of preparing a short story collection (or anthology). Do you match or contrast tone or themes? Do you put related stories together? The truth is that it probably matters less to the reader than the writer/editor thinks, as readers will often pick and choose. However, with single-author collections, my practice is to read, from the beginning, in the order presented. And this is where the fun started with Pelt and other stories. There are, for example, sly connections in which a character – Nathalie for example – is an important subject in one story (“Nathalie”), but then appears as a passing reference elsewhere. Other stories have stronger connections. I was particularly intrigued by McNamara’s presentation of three of these – “Opaque”, “Where the wounded go” and “Volta”. They don’t appear consecutively, and when they do appear it is not chronological. I’m not sure what McNamara’s intention was in this, but for me it replicates the way we get to know people. We meet them at a point in time, getting to know their current lives, while gradually learning their back story. In a collection that ranges widely in character and location, the connections can be grounding.
What I particularly like about the stories is their honesty. McNamara doesn’t flinch from letting her characters express their (our) meanest, least generous thoughts. Love, McNamara shows, can make us selfish, desperate, and sometimes cruel. In the first story, “Pelt”, the animality of lust is palpable as a pregnant black mistress stands her ground, fighting for her rather weak, German lover against his barren wife. Many of her stories are about compromised relationships and the accommodations made, by one or both parties, to keep them going. “The Coptic Bride” is one of these, as is “Opaque” in which a woman’s love for her man is tested against her sense of morality, of what is right:
But if she called, it would perforate all that she held close to her. It would cost her her life.
Do you think she made that call?
These are unsettling stories about characters struggling to survive in a precarious world. Europe’s colonisation of Africa shadows the book. Many of the relationships are mixed, and in most stories there is power imbalance, and hints of exploitation. It’s there in “Pelt”. In “Janet and the Angry Trees” a sex-worker is taken to her Italian lover’s family home to look after his parents, and seems to accept the pittance of attention she gets from her still-married lover. It’s in the little piece “Innocent” about a taxi driver, his white employer and his pregnant teenage girlfriend, and in “Infection” in which a brother receives a western education while his sister “received no education, cursory love, much admonishment”. There’s a suggestion in some stories of stereotyping – you know, the lusty, sensual black woman and the unfaithful white man looking for “a bit” on the side – but the relationships are more complex than that. Overall, I’d say that the stories are more about humanity than about politics, while recognising that politics has contributed to the uncertainty of the world the characters inhabit.
A recurring motif in the book is the photographer. McNamara seems to view photographers with suspicion. At least they tend not to be the most admirable characters in the stories in which they appear. They represent the disconnect between appearance and reality, and perhaps also the idea of exploitation. In “Gorgeous Eyes”, the narrator views photographs by the visiting famous photographer, Nina Cooke, seeing the truth behind the idealised images of “Dinka men – erotic in beaded body corsets”. He reflects that those in the know see something else, “a crucible of sadness”, in these images and concludes:
If Nina Cooke’s gift ever needed an honest name it would be the invasive branding of humble detail. It appears she is at the vanguard of a vulgar world trait.
These stories are not comfortable reading. Some make more sense to me than others. But McNamara’s voice is strong, her writing lively and her characters real. Pelt and other stories will linger with me for some time.
Pelt and other stories: Tales of lust and dirt
Beaworthy: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013
(Review copy courtesy the author)