Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven in Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4)

Review of Australian FictionI have been wanting to write about the oddly titled Review of Australian Fiction for some time. I say oddly titled because, contrary to what it might sound like, this does not contain reviews but short fiction. Established in 2012, it is published, electronically (or digitally), every two weeks. Each issue contains two stories by Australian authors: one by an established author, and the other by an emerging author, chosen by the established author. Funnily, in the issue I’m reviewing here, it’s the emerging author, Ellen van Neerven, whom I’ve read before, not the established one, Tony Birch. But, I’m so glad that Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week has given me the opportunity to a) finally read something by Birch, and b) finally read Review of Australian Fiction issue.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”

Birch’s story is told first person by a young indigenous boy, the 11-year-old Noah Sexton. He’s dirty, smelly, poorly dressed, and no-one wants to know him – except the new girl, Heather, who invites him to sit next to her. She’s “the cleanest person I’d ever seen” with “no pox rashes, bites or scars like I had”. At lunchtime, Heather offers the hungry Noah a sandwich and engages him in conversation. She asks him why he sits alone, and he gives the classic reply:

‘I sit here because I’m a Sexton.’

She doesn’t know what that means of course. When he discovers that her father is the policeman “in charge of the station”, he assumes:

Our mob was well known to the police, and I knew straightaway that as soon as her father got the story on the family name, she wouldn’t be sitting under any tree offering me a vegemite sandwich.

But, it doesn’t quite work out the way he expected. When he explains to the friendly Heather that he’s from “the only abo family left in town”, she tells him that “abo” is “a dirty word” and that “people like you, we call them half-castes. It’s more proper”. Noah disagrees, telling her that “an abo’s an abo, no matter how black or white he is … Far as whitefella is interested, the shit smells just the same.” Heather shows discomfort at this language, but Noah doesn’t care. He’s “beginning to think she was only another do-gooder”. He tells her about how his people have been treated in town, but Heather tells him her father will be different, that “he’s always fair, to both sides”. Not surprisingly, Noah is (silently) sceptical. Nonetheless, this little bit of kindness from Heather brings out a new sense of self in Noah – he doesn’t wolf down the sandwich, pretending he has a few manners, and when he gets up to go into school after that first lunch he dusts his pants off “for maybe the first time in my life”.

And so Heather spends most lunchtimes with Noah, because she’s a Christian and it’s “a sin to turn away from those in need”. Noah doesn’t like being seen as a “charity case” but is so enamoured of Heather that he’ll “put up with anything”. Understandable, given his treatment at school before.

I won’t describe any more. This is a clever story about do-gooders. Birch has astutely chosen for his protagonist a young boy on the cusp of puberty. Noah, straddling that line between childhood and adulthood, has a sense of his agency, and yet not quite the experience, nor the resources, to insist on enacting it. It’s a story about confused emotions, and about smugness and self-satisfaction. It’s about the right to dignity, and, of course, about power.

Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”

awwchallenge2015Unique, original, fresh are words I avoid when writing reviews, not only because they feel cliched but because they can be contested by anyone whose reading experience is wider than mine. So, instead, I’ll just comment on Ellen van Neerven’s capacity to surprise. I found it in her Heat and light which I reviewed earlier this year, and in “Sweetest thing”.

“Sweetest thing” is a third-person story about Serene, the child of an indigenous mother and the town’s Dutch baker. She is addicted to having her breasts suckled. It all started in puberty (“that pertinent time of a woman’s life”) with her first experience of having a man suckle her breast occuring with a male tutor when she’s nearly fourteen. He lifts up her shirt:

Beautifully out of herself, she was open and messy and dislocated like a bouquet being readied for a vase, flowers, stems, spores spread everywhere.

Nothing else happens besides this suckling, but Serene feels “bliss” and “knew then that this was what she had been programmed to need”. Slowly, as Serene schemes and positions herself to have her need met, we learn about loss. We learn, for example, about the Kedron pub, which “had refused Serene’s grandparents entry” but which is now

a haunt for women of her mother’s ilk: divorced, discarded, with loose threads of long silent and secret relationships carried under their shirts.

Under their shirts. A reference to their breasts? We learn about the gradual withdrawal of her father as he starts to focus on his “real daughter”. Serene feels anger at “the silence in her life, at his hypocrisy”.

Born into this in-between world – not quite rejected as her grandparents were, but not fully accepted either – Serene believes she deserves “comfort, worship, devotion. Trust and understanding”, but fears “hollowness”.

And so, her life progresses through school and early womanhood into mature adulthood. She has friends, she experiences casual sex, she becomes a masseuse – but still there’s the need for suckling, to have “the most basic of her needs met”. Again, I’ll leave the story here. It’s longer than Birch’s and spans a few decades of Serene’s life, which includes a meaningful relationship and a successful career.

“Sweetest thing” is an edgy story. Serene’s unusual addiction works as a rather confronting metaphor for what all humans need – love and acceptance. What I like about Van Neerven, here and in Heat and light, is that her indigenous characters are not “types”. Their indigeneity is part of who they are, and is fundamental to the challenges they confront, but her characters are also “universal” – that is, they are needy, flawed characters who muddle along, just as the rest of us do, in the lives they find themselves in. It’s powerful stuff.

ANZ_ILW2015Read for ANZLitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”
Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”
in: Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4), May 2014

13 thoughts on “Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven in Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4)

  1. They sound dreadful – these stories – as if written 50 years ago? What is the point unless to adhere to age-old stereotypes. And the paedophile experience of the 13 year old! I am unimpressed. Thanks for alerting your readers to the existence of such rubbish.

  2. I don’t see how Jim Kable’s comment follows from the review. Heat and Light is around the house somewhere so I’ll read that next then look out for this one and make up my own mind.

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  4. Thanks for reviewing these – I read this issue when it came out and was blown away by ‘The Sweetest Thing’ – I’d forgotten until now that the author was van Neerven, whose book I also loved. I thought ‘The Sweetest Thing’ was utterly remarkable, unlike any other story I’ve read, creating a character completely different to me but written so brilliantly that I utterly understood her.

    • Oh, I’m so glad someone else has read this story Jane. I read it twice and the first time I was blown away too – van Neerven is such an interesting new voice on the scene, and this story is so complex, with so many ways of seeing it, of pulling it apart. I felt quite overwhelmed when I realised I’d told Lisa that I’d review this issue! “Utterly remarkable” is a great description and confirms that maybe the words I wanted to use weren’t cliches!

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