As I’ve said before, I usually don’t read book introductions until the end. In the case of Breaking beauty, an anthology of short stories edited by Lynette Washington, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had read it first because Brian Castro’s intro gave nothing away while at the same time saying a lot. He starts by noting that the short story is making a come-back, “and wondering why it ever went away, perhaps because we were too imbued with the great whatever novel in the Borealis of canons or by the glossy fits of fashionable shades of grey”. Love the bite in that!
It’s a great introduction. It’s erudite, pithy, and often tongue-in-cheek. Castro says, reading my mind, “what good is an intro-duction if you haven’t been in-ducted, or even read the stories”. What indeed? And yet, his “intro-duction” manages to craftily incorporate the stories and their contexts, the ideas that drive them, without over-explaining or giving anything away. It is one of the most delicious introductions I’ve read in a very long time – unlike my introduction, so let’s move on!
Breaking beauty is a collection of stories by graduates of the University of Adelaide’s Creative Writing course. As Castro hints through a reference to Rousseau and as Washington states more directly, the stories explore the “complementary forces” and “dualities” encompassed by the idea of beauty, the notion that “there is no beauty without ugliness”. There are 28 stories, of which 22 are by women. They range in length from three or four pages to ten or so. Five of the stories have been published elsewhere, including Melanie Kinsman’s heart-rending “A paper woman” which was published in the Margaret River Press’s The trouble with flying (my review).
As you would expect, the stories look at beauty from all sorts of angles, physical, emotional, spiritual, even intellectual, but they rarely tell it straight. In Matthew Gabriel’s “To my son”, for example, an ugly father presents, to his apparently similarly ugly son, his solution for “neutralising physical appearance” which, he believes, will “not only rid the world of ugly’s plague but also its inextricable and toxic inverse”. Jo Lennan’s “A real looker” explores an extra-marital passion that resulted in a daughter who struggles to understand the adult world of passion, and a father transfers this passion to a boat called Marilyn. Sean Williams’ “The beholders” is a speculative fiction piece which cleverly twists the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In other stories, beauty is more abstract . The second story, Corrie Hosking’s “A well strained fence”, is told first person by a young man for whom beauty is neatness and order. It’s a nicely sustained story that epitomises what a complicated notion or concept beauty is. It also neatly provides me with an opportunity to talk about voice. Just over half the stories are told first person, and two are told second person. One of these, Mary Lynn Mather’s mother-and-child story, “Whatever happened to the fairy-tale ending”, uses second person effectively to convey an emotion that is almost beyond bearing.
But of course voice is about more than which “person” is used; it’s about the persona used to tell the story, that is, about how the narrator of that story sounds to us. In short story collections – particularly anthologies – we usually find a great variety in voice (and, related to this, tone). Lynette Washington, in “Lia and Amos”, uses a matter-of-fact, reporter-like third person voice to tell a story with an unusual twist. The voice keeps us on our toes, divulging only what is going on in the moment, with no backstory or additional information, so that the end, when it comes, surprises and yet seems natural at the same time, because nothing has been sensationalised. By contrast, Rosemary Jackson’s narrator, Athina in “Athina and the sixty-nine calorie burn”, exudes the distressing (in this case), naive confidence of the young while the reader knows exactly what’s going on.
Several stories, including some already mentioned, tackle contemporary society’s (over-)emphasis on beauty. Others look at a broader notion of aesthetics from some interesting angles. Rebekah Clarkson uses an argument about aesthetics – a finial, in fact – in “A simple matter of aesthetics” to expose male arrogance, while in Katherine Arguile’s “Wabi-Sabi” a man’s commitment to aesthetics puts his family’s health, indeed survival, at risk. Meanwhile, Stefan Laszczuk’s narrator in “The window winder” finds beauty in a very gruesome place.
There’s no way, of course, that I can mention all twenty-eight stories. The ones I’ve mentioned here aren’t the only ones I enjoyed. There are moving – and often painful – stories about love, about sons and mothers, nieces and aunts, husbands and wives, mothers and children. There are stories about ageing, and the losses that usually attend, in one form or another. And there’s Lilian Rose’s cheeky story about a very unusual “Ladies Tea Party”.
Castro writes in his introduction of “the fleeting and the fleeing before one’s eyes, as a good short story is wont to do, not allowing its meaning to fully emerge because that would kill it, but letting it flit mothlike into memory”. This definition of good short stories could also define “true” beauty – as I’m sure the writers in this diverse and enjoyable collection would agree.
(Review copy supplied by Midnight Sun)