I have just read Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection of short stories, Six bedrooms, in my quest to read at least some of the Stella Prize shortlist before the announcement of the winner on the 19th of this month. I haven’t read Daylight before – she has written three novels, among other things – so I was glad for the added incentive to read her now. It helped, of course, that Brother Gums and family gave me the book for my birthday!
So, Six bedrooms. It’s a collection of 10 short stories, seven of which have been published previously in literary journals and anthologies. Eight are written in first person, and the other two in third. While the stories are all complete within themselves, as you’d expect, one character, Tasha, appears in four of them, the first, fourth, seventh and tenth. Evenly spaced out in other words, providing a nice sense of continuity and a sort of narrative framework for the whole. That, briefly, is the form of the book, but let’s get now to the content.
Most of the stories could be described as coming-of-age stories, as most of the protagonists are in their teens or early twenties. If you define coming-of-age broadly – that is, as a time of growth, transition and establishing identity – almost all the stories could be described as that. In the last story, “Together alone”, for example, Tasha is 36 years old, but while she’s certainly more “together” than her first appearance at 15 years old, she still has unresolved issues in her life, mainly to do with a missing brother and an ex-husband. This brings me to the epigraph. It’s by Tim Winton, and says “… the past is in us, not behind us. Things are never over.” A truism, you might say, but in this world where “closure” seems to be the thing, it’s worth remembering.
Although only the four Tasha stories are linked by character, there are several themes that recur in the book, besides the coming-of-age one. One is closely related to coming-of-age – the idea of the misfit. How many of us felt we were misfits, had that excruciating sense of feeling out of step with everyone else, only to discover later that those who looked so together felt the same! Tasha, in her first appearance in the book’s opening story “Like a virgin”, goes to a party with her friend Judy. She’s 15 years old, and feels ashamed because they showed everyone else how unable they were to deal with a party. Jane, the younger of two sisters in “Trouble”, feels lonely and awkward, a poor copy of her sister, and despises herself. And so on. Rose in “J’aime Rose”, though, has a different take. She calls herself a misfit, then soon after argues that she isn’t because she “didn’t have the courage”. For her a misfit is one who stands out through, say, “triple-pierced ears” or “a radical devotion to a singer or a style”. A rose by any other name I’d say! Anyhow, misfit or not, Rose, like many of the book’s protagonists, is lonely and unconfident, which leads her, like those other protagonists, to behave selfishly or even spitefully at times. The thing is that it’s all so believable! Unfortunately.
Other recurrent themes or motifs include missing people (parents, in particular, but also siblings, who disappear or die) which can exacerbate outsiderness, lack of sexual confidence, and friendships that survive or don’t under the weight of adolescent self-obsession and inexperience. Tasha and Judy remain friends through the jealousies and little lies to the last story when they are in the thirties, while Sarah and Fern in “Other animals” can’t survive a terrible difference in experience that Sarah doesn’t understand until way later. Daylight captures beautifully here the naive narrator who describes what she sees without having the maturity to understand the shadows beneath.
I enjoyed all the stories, but some stood out more than others. The Tasha stories for example. Daylight doesn’t broadcast the continuity, but provides hints – the name of the friend, the alcoholic but loving mother, the brother – that clue you in to the fact these stories are about the same person.
I also particularly enjoyed the title story, “Six bedrooms”, one of the non-previously-published stories in the book. The six bedrooms refer to a share-house. After all, you couldn’t really have a book about adolescents and young adults without one share-house story! The narrator here is 19-year-old Claire. Daylight builds the story with tight, effective narrative control. The residents of five bedrooms are introduced in the first couple of pages leaving us to wonder about the sixth. We learn about him four pages in. And Claire tells us that she has a friend in the house, with whom she’d moved from a previous house, but it’s clear the friendship is not strong. That too is left hanging, unexplained, until later in the story when we realise there are other perspectives besides Claire’s. Gradually, the relationships and their tensions are developed as Claire tries to find her own way and place. She befriends William, the resident of the sixth bedroom, but it never quite goes the way she’d like:
William sat on the one single chair. I smiled at him but it was as though the smile missed him, went over his head.
I waited for him to touch me. I left my hand lying beside him so he could pick it up, but his hands were busy. He was itchy, and he needed to smoke …
I invented a persona for myself: I was a girlfriend. Almost.
The problem is that she, like other narrators in the book, is naive, and there are things about William that she, in her naiveté, missed completely. Her pain of feeling stupid and alone is palpable.
Ultimately, Six bedrooms is about youth’s painful lessons. Its power lies in the way it captures the small (and not so small) excruciating moments in our lives when we know things aren’t right, but we don’t know how to right them. There are no dramatic resolutions or big light bulb moments, but there are glimmers of a forward momentum in many of the characters’ lives, such as Tasha realising in “Together alone” that “I might have been harder to live with than I thought”. Mostly, though, it’s about accepting that “awkwardness and trouble are part of being alive’’ (“Trouble”), that things are, indeed, never quite over. Another good Stella shortlist choice.