John Clanchy, like Julian Davies whose Crow mellow I recently reviewed, is another Australian writer I’d heard of but not read until his piece in the Canberra centenary anthology, The invisible thread. What a treasure trove that has turned out to be! Anyhow, titled “The gunmen”, Clanchy’s contribution was an excerpt from his first novel, The life of the land, published in 1985. He’s a versatile writer, it seems, crossing genres (such as crime and mystery) and form (novels, short stories, and non-fiction). Six, the book I’ve just read, is a collection of six short stories – long short stories, in fact. An earlier collection of his, Vincenzo’s Garden, won the 2005 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Short Stories and the 2006 ACT Book of the Year. If it’s anything like Six, I can see why.
But, before I get onto the book itself, a little about the publisher. Finlay Lloyd describes itself as a
a non profit publisher dedicated to encouraging imaginative and challenging writing, to subtly innovative design and to celebrating the pleasures of print on paper in an electronic age. Without the commercial imperative of most publishers, we are able to champion ideas and authors for their intrinsic interest and quality. We support independent bookshops as local outlets for these ideas and authors. Our books are printed in Australia to support the local industry (by Griffin Press and Ligare Book Printing).
It’s the “subtly innovative design” I particularly want to mention here (while also appreciating the rest of their philosophy). I’ve handled now about four of their books and they are beautiful. The shape varies, with some, such as Six, being long and thin. Subtly different (just like all planes!), and nice to hold. Six has an additional special touch – the first page of each of the stories is on slightly whiter, finer paper. There’s no table of contents, but you can quickly locate each of the stories by flicking the book through to these pages. These are simple things, but they make you feel that the book in your hand has been produced with love and care.
Anyhow, onto the book itself. I found all six stories completely engaging, imaginative, and one, surprisingly, laugh-out-loud funny. I say surprisingly because it’s rare that I’d read a truly funny short story, although there’s often one or two in a collection that make me smile. This story, “Slow burn”, is, I suppose, a “mere male” story, and, while I don’t really approve of “mere male” stories – they can be somewhat condescending – this one is too funny, too beautifully controlled, not to make me laugh. It’s all about Daryl Turtle who is “ill. Dangerously, perhaps fatally ill” and his wish to make himself a comforting piece of toast to go with the thermos coffee his thoughtful wife has left for him.
The other five stories – “Slow burn” is the third in the collection – are more serious. They deal with contemporary situations, a father who turns out to be gay and another who is discovered to have had a second family in another country. There’s a husband whose affair with an indigenous woman exposes an ugliness that shocks him. And there’s a powerful story about a couple whose daughter was killed overseas in a Bali-style bombing. These are the sorts of situations you read or hear about and wonder how the people at the centre of them cope. Clanchy explores just this, with sensitivity and authenticity, teasing out the underlying humanity of his characters. Whether they are a philandering husband, or rebellious daughter, a grieving father or lonely postman, we empathise and are encouraged to see the extent of human capacity to accommodate the unexpected. To put it another way, Clanchy’s characters tend to be confronted with seemingly black-and-white situations but find themselves capable of recognising the greys and responding, in most cases, generously and/or with growth.
The stories are not tricksy. In other words, they are not the sorts of short stories that you get to the end and wonder, “what was that about?” This may come from Clanchy’s experience in writing genre – two collaborative crime thrillers with another Canberra writer, Mark Henshaw. It may also relate to the fact that these are long-form short stories. (My rough calculation is that they are around 15,000 words, some shorter, some longer, whereas short stories are typically half that or less.) You may have noticed that, with the exception of “Slow burn”, I haven’t named the stories I’ve referred to. This is to avoid spoilers implicit in my comments. That said, while each story has a strong narrative arc with clear plot points, the focus is not really the plot. It’s the characters – which is where my interest lies and why I enjoyed the book so much.
I also enjoyed Clanchy’s writing. It’s clear and direct, and abounds with sharp observation. There’s humour, even in the serious stories, and fun wordplay. Here’s a description I loved:
Dot runs the general store and post office in town. She hates the sound of ‘Dot’ and you won’t get the time out of day if you call her that. ‘Dot is what a pen does to an eye,’ she says to anyone who doesn’t know, ‘and I’m an optometrist’s daughter, so call me May.’ And since she’s in charge of the town mail, that’s exactly what people do, though most people think that Dotty would suit her better. (from “True glue”)
As I neared the end of the last story, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes, Wallace Stegner’s “Civilisations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations” in Angle of repose. In Six, as in most fiction of course, the characters are challenged by some event or situation and need to decide how they will respond. Stegner’s quote can, I believe, be applied not just to civilisations but to relationships and, indeed, character. Six evokes this perfectly. I really don’t know why Clanchy is not better known.
Six: New tales
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)