Cate Kennedy (ed), Australian love stories (Review)

Cate Kennedy, Australian Love Stories cover

(Courtesy: Inkerman & Blunt)

Four hundred and forty-five stories! She read four hundred and forty-five of them! I’m talking about Cate Kennedy, the editor of Australian love stories. These stories were the response to Inkerman & Blunt’s call for Australian writers “to share their love stories, fictional or true”. Having no experience in these things, I don’t know what they expected, but 445 sounds like a good response to me! The final anthology contains just 29, and they are all, not surprisingly, good reads. This is not to say that I loved them all equally, but certainly none jarred for being ordinary or clichéd. Not only is the writing high quality, but Kennedy’s selection has produced a collection that is diverse in subject matter and style. It wasn’t hard to read four or five in a sitting.

If you’ve read my previous reviews of short story collections, you’d know that I’m always interested in the order of the stories. Well, this anthology has been overtly structured, with “like” stories grouped under headings. Each heading, cutely I suppose but nonetheless effectively, draws from a story within the group. So, for example, the heading “A sweetly alien creature” comes from the second story in its group, Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”. I’m easily amused, I know, but I did look forward to spotting the heading-title as I read each group. There are seven of these groups, each containing four stories, with one exception that had five. In her Introduction, Kennedy, herself an award-winning short story writer, says that “Donna Ward [the publisher] and I arranged the stories into a kind of narrative arc of the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself and us [in] the process.” This arc, though, isn’t an obvious one, like, you know, young love, broken love, old love. It’s more fluid than that.

And so, the first story, Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn”, is about an older couple who have been together for a long time. The narrator, the man, clearly still adores his wife, and watches her, caresses her, in the early hours of the morning. While the birds come to life and sing in the day, she sleeps on. He knows her well, knows what he can do, how far he can go, before he will irritate her and break the spell:

So I don’t touch that bone. It would be over. She presses in closer to me and her breasts slide heavily against me and a thigh rises over mine and she squirms again, adjusting, moulding herself to me, fidgeting this limb and that, this foot against that, settling. It is not yet over.

This is a beautifully observed piece. It thrilled and inspired me – and gave me confidence that if the collection started like this, I was going to be in good hands.

What I particularly enjoy about an anthology like this is that it can give me a taste of writers I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (such as Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch and Lisa Jacobson), or reacquaint me with writers I have read before and enjoyed (such as Irma Gold, Leah Swan, and Carmel Bird), or, perhaps most excitingly, introduce me to writers I don’t know at all (such as  J Anne DeStaic, Sally-Ann Jones and Sharon Kernot). But, here’s the thing. How to write about a collection in which pretty well every story moved me? I don’t want to simply generalise and tell you that they covered the whole gamut of love – from straight to same-sex, from romantic love to parental, from lasting to broken love, from supportive love to betrayal and revenge, from love across nations to love at home – though the anthology does do all these. And I can’t really describe every story in the book. So, I’ll just choose one from each section to give a flavour.

I’ve already mentioned Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn” so will leave it at that for opening group titled “A sensuous weight”. The second group, “Why cupid is painted blind”, includes stories about love that can be passionate, obsessive, overwhelming. J Anne deStaic’s “Lover like a tree” is a devastating story about a woman in love with a man in love with his drugs (and yes, also with her). DeStaic conveys this two-edged love, his need for the drug as strong as her need for him, with sensitivity and without judgement. It is what it is.

The next four stories, in “Adrift in shards and splattered fruit”, explore same-sex love. They are not the only stories to touch on this issue, which was pleasing to see. Confining them all to one section would have insulted today’s reality. Debi Hamilton’s “The edge of the known world” is about missed opportunities, about the one who loves and the other who doesn’t see it:

Carmelita. Carmelita. There. I like to think her name. If you want to hear a love story I can write you one. If you want a story in which someone breaks someone else’s heart, this is the story for you.

We are warned early in the story, and yet the end still saddens.

From this group we move to “There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret”. These stories are about difficult loves, sometimes past loves. It’s a powerful and varied group, but I’ll choose Sally-Ann Jones’ “Hammer orchid” to represent it. It spans thirty odd years in the lives of a young woman and an indigenous man. It starts “when she was eight and he was sixteen” and ends when they are fifty and fifty-eight. Set in Western Australia, it tells the story of a young girl’s crush and a young man’s recognition of the boundaries that need to be maintained. It gently encompasses issues like the patronising “naming” of indigenous workers (“Bill” is called “Biscuits” by his employers), knowing country, and environmental protest, all tied together by Levis and a silver belt buckle – but, beyond that, my lips are sealed.

“A sweetly alien creature”, as you might guess from this group’s title, explores parental love. Of course, like all love, this doesn’t run smooth. There’s a story about a false pregnancy (Rafael SW’s “Small expectations”), and another in which Lola promises to marry Henry and give him a baby if he’ll let her have a cat (Caroline Petit’s clever “The contract”). There’s Irma Gold’s only-too-believable story about “The little things” that can bring it all asunder, and Natasha Lester’s succinct piece about losing the language of adult love, postpartum (“It used to be his eyes”).  And then there’s Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”, a bittersweet story about what happens when conception doesn’t happen on demand. What then?

I hope I’m not boring you, but we are nearly there! The penultimate group, “Firm as anchors, wet as fishes”, looks at how health issues can challenge or get in the way of love. There’s cancer of course, and I had to laugh at Sharon Kernot’s resourceful wife in “Love and antibiotics” when she tells her husband she has chlamydia. Allison Browning’s “These bones” is, we learn from the biographies, an excerpt from her current novel-in-progress. It’s about Enzo, a gay man with dementia. He’s in a care facility and misses waking up next to Nev. He might have dementia, but he still manages to escape the facility, despite its security-coded doors:

Today is a gardening day, the kind where no gloves are needed because the earth is warm and kind to the skin and the dirt feels soothing on the flesh.

We do meet Nev at the end, and he is as tolerant and loving as Enzo remembers and deserves. I’m intrigued now about the novel.

The last section, “The unbroken trajectory of falling” is – and you’ve probably been waiting for this – about love gone very wrong. There’s adultery of course, and breakups. There’s even a murder. Kennedy clearly decided that there would be no whimpering at the end of her anthology. No, we would go out with a bang. And so, if Pascoe opened the collection with a lyrical evocation of mature love, then Carmel Bird’s “Where the honey meets the air” brings it to a close with a breathless piece that barely stops for a comma, let alone a full-stop. Here, Sugar-Sam, in a stream-of-consciousness featuring word-play galore and “mincing metaphors”, chronicles his relationship with Honey-Hannah. It’s wickedly funny, with allusions high and low, little digs at our modern ways of communicating (“the merrymedia, social and anti-social”), and pointed references to contemporary issues. It is surely not a coincidence that Tasmanian-born Bird’s character marries into a family called Gunn. He describes the family’s taking over their wedding:

when Her Family swept in and tied us up in knots, ribbons, bows and a certain amount of barbed wire, and whirled us up the aisle …

Lurking in the language, behind its breezy tone, are, as you can see here, hints of something else. “I should have warned you”, he says at one point, “about how this narrative will tie itself in the knots of several metaphors and coincidences and things”. It certainly does that. By the end we are left fearing that Sugar-Sam has indeed tied us up in knots. A clever, satisfying, not definitively resolved story. What a way to finish.

All in all, a wonderful read. If you don’t want to take my word for it, do check out reviews by John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Karen Lee Thompson.

awwchallenge2014Cate Kennedy (ed)
Australian love stories
Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2014
ISBN: 9780987540164

(Review copy supplied by Inkerman & Blunt)

37 thoughts on “Cate Kennedy (ed), Australian love stories (Review)

  1. This sounds like a must-have collection with a healthy span – in good hands indeed. I did a workshop with Cate Kennedy this summer and it was thrilling and revealing. Cate also read at the festival (13th International Festival of the Short Story in English, in Vienna) and had us in tears when she read ‘What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved’ from Dark Roots. She is brilliant!

    • It is a great collection Catherine … I’m sure you would love a lot of it. A ‘healthy span’ is a good way to describe it. I haven’t seen her in person but I saw her interview Nam Le on one of those computer TV channels. I was impressed then. I’ve only read one of her short stories – I need to read more clearly.

  2. 450+ submissions would count as success I’d say. Of course a lot of them could have been dross but the ones you’e highlighted hear do sound very good. I like the extract from Dawn particularly

  3. I was one of the failed entrants for this; and in truth I know perfectly well that what I wrote was not up to scratch – even for me.
    I had already decided (and stated on my blog) that I would never write of Chic’s dying again; but my brain was not sufficiently alive in my head as to understand that I didn’t need to, here. I did, in truth; and it was not good. I know that.
    I really have no idea what I’m even HOPING to do with doing any further writing; but I do know that I’m very glad you found this book pleasing, Sue.

    • Well, good for you MR for giving it a go. Maybe another anecdote from your lives might have been better … But then, perhaps you’ve used them up. I can imagine that it might have been hard to write it again in a way that felt fresh to you … And if it didn’t feel fresh to you it probably wouldn’t come across that way to others? Anyhow, do read the book if you can.

  4. Sounds like a great book, WG. And one that proves yet again, if it ever did need proving, that the short story is alive, waving its skirts and kicking. Which raises the question: are the interesting books being published by small publishers now? I know this is entering dangerous generalisation territory but I think it’s worth discussing, don’t you?

    • Good question Sara. At first I read it as “are there interesting books ….” And I thought of course there are. And then I realised you were asking “are THE interesting books …”. Tricky area indeed, but I think there’s some truth in it, particularly when you look at risks being taken. But even some established writers find it hard with the big publishers. If you also include small to medium, how do we define small?, like Text and UQP then …

      The problem is of course that the small publishers have a much harder time getting their books out there and noticed. We bloggers probably help a little there but our reach isn’t as far as mainstream reviewers, and probably not into the areas of the opinion-makers?

  5. Thank you Whispering Gums for this fabulous review – I bought my copy yesterday and can’t wait to plunge in – reacquainting, as you say, as well as meeting for the first time. Love short stories! And Cate Kennedy!

      • Will do! I also picked up the Margaret River Short Story Competition 2014 anthology entitled The Trouble With Flying and other stories (Readings in Carlton had to order it for me – I was surprised it wasn’t on their shelves). I read one of the collection last night by Mark Smith called Butcher’s Creek, a stunning story with the central theme of bushfire. So many stories…

        • Oh good for you. I’ve also reviewed the Margaret River one – this year’s and last year’s. Some great stories there too. I haven’t heard of the Mark Smith. So many stories, so many good writers out there.

  6. Great review. Don’t tell anyone but I’m very excited to read this. I’ve enjoyed Cate Kennedy’s Best Australian Stories picks and love a good *violent cough* love story…

  7. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Glowing Reviews for Australian Love Stories

    • Well, I was just saying to Mr Gums this afternoon that I thought you were coming round! Were your ears burning? I defy you not to enjoy this one, given your recent more positive forays into the genre!

  8. Dear Whispering Gums

    I am just writing to thank you for your wonderful blog, which I (nearly) always read with great interest.

    Like you, I am retired, after working for many years in the Australian publishing industry, first as a book editor and later as a commissioning editor and publisher. I am now a part-time volunteer tutor with the University of the Third Age, for whom I run two classes. One is a book group called Landmarks in Australian Literature, and the other is a film group.

    I have recommended your blog to the members of the book group, and I do hope some of them have signed up.

    I think you are doing a marvellous thing with this blog; may you keep it going for many years to come!

    Best wishes

    Teresa Pitt

    Sent from my iPad


    • Wow, thanks Teresa. That’s a lovely think for you to say. My husband is very involved with our local U3A and I have quite a few friends who go to courses. So far I haven’t – not because I don’t want to but because my time seems too taken up at present to commit to another regular thing. If I did though, literature and film would be the first things I would look at. It’s great to hear that you are doing a course on Australian literature. Presumably that means you have a bunch of people interested in the topic. I’d of course love to know what “landmarks” you talk about.

  9. Pingback: Australian Love Stories, edited by Cate Kennedy, guest review by Karenlee Thompson | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  10. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Bruce Pascoe, ‘Dawn’

  11. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » J. Anne DeStaic, Lover Like a Tree

  12. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Debi Hamilton, Edge of the Known World

  13. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Caroline Petit, The Contract

  14. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Natasha Lester, It Used to be His Eyes

  15. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Susan Midalia, A Blast of a Poem

  16. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Sharon Kernot, Love and Antibiotics

  17. Pingback: Inkerman & Blunt » Allison Browning, These Bones

  18. Pingback: Dorothy Johnston

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