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.
(Review copy supplied by Inkerman & Blunt)