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Karenlee Thompson, Flame tip: Short fictions (#BookReview)

August 18, 2017

Karenlee Thompson, Flame tipShort story anthologies usually have some sort of organising principle – a theme, perhaps, such as Australian love stories, or a prize, such as the Margaret River Short Story Competition – but single author collections tend to be looser. Not so Karenlee Thompson’s Flame tip which she describes as containing “creative writing pieces that weave in and around the Tasmanian bushfires of 1967”. These fires, she writes, “left 62 people dead, 900 injured and over 7,000 homeless in a single day”.

With subject matter like this, you might think Flame tip would be distressing to read – and there is that. But Thompson manages to vary the tone enough, by injecting the occasional bit of humour and satire for example, to lighten the melancholy of the heavier stories. This humour, in fact, starts with David Walsh’s idiosyncratic (we would expect no less) introduction. He tells us he remembers the day – 7 February – because it was his first day of school, and his Mum forgot to pick him up. She “forgot” because she was fighting a fire on their back fence, but Walsh wonders whether this was a “viable excuse” or whether she chose to “triage the back fence over her weird and difficult son”. Whatever the reason, Walsh’s family lost neither home nor persons – unlike some of the characters in Thompson’s book.

So now, the book. Karenlee says in her introduction that it’s a collection to be “dipped into at random” and that her aim is “to present the truth ‘under the mask of fiction’ (to borrow from Gao Xingjian), revealing nuances of character and place, as well as repercussions that are often difficult to expose through nonfiction”. This is exactly what she achieves. Some of the stories are told from the point of view of people who experienced the day – who lost loved ones or property – and some are told by later generations. Sometimes the impact of the fires is direct and obvious, such as the wife who lost the love of her life (“Like a wall”), while elsewhere it is far less direct, such as the fickle lover in “Love, what is thy name?” whose grandparents lost their home in the fires.

Many of the stories of loss – the loss of a husband, parent or friend – are the sorts of stories you’d expect. I don’t mean by that, however, that they’re clichéd or uninteresting, but just that in such a collection you’d expect such stories of loss. Thompson ensures her stories are interesting by personalising the loss, and by creating “real” characters rather than the heroes and saints you tend to get in the media. An example is the betrayed wife in “A bird in the oven” who was 12 years old when she lost her mother in the fire and who took “a long time growing up”. Another is “The keeper of the satchel”, a man more damaged by his mother’s lack of love than by her death.

There are positive stories too, such as the young girl in “Jack Frost” who finds love. And there are surprising stories. One is “Medusa One Snake”, about how a family of birds manipulates fire to locate prey (the fleeing animals, “a mobile smorgasbord”). Another is “Degustation” about a woman on a date with the perfectly-named Augustus from a family which “had bought up all the available charred and rubble-ridden farms in the district, after the fire had rendered the singed locals almost comatose with shock”. There’s always someone ready to make a buck out of other people’s pain!

The issue of form … short fictions

The book is subtitled “short fictions”, and Thompson describes it as a collection of “creative writing pieces”. In other words, the term “short stories” isn’t used. There are “traditional” short stories here, but the collection also includes other “pieces”. There’s the shape poem “Flame”, an epistolary story (“Love, what is thy name”), and the piece titled “Lost” which riffs on lost-and-found ads. In it Margaret Groombell writes:

Lost

A life

Including: four-bedroom weatherboard home with indoor amenities, a much loved border collie answering to the name of Richie, a sense of security, linen and cutlery, a priceless hand-painted jardinière, stamp collection gathered and assembled over three generations, pink shower cap studded with daisies, deck of hand-painted burlesque playing cards, a position of some standing in the community, 2 striped deck chairs …

And so on. The random ordering of “items” here – “a sense of security” next to “linen and cutlery” – beautifully conveys the dislocation, the disorder, that such loss generates.

Another piece, “Annabelle, just looking”, plays with the idea of personal ads, but it’s an extended ad in which 72-year-old Annabelle explains her needs and why she’s where she is. She describes herself. She’s “never considered Botox or any of that other rubbish”, she says:

My forehead, therefore, is less like a flat screen TV and more like a topographical map. Life has surprised me, frightened me, delighted me – it’s all there in plain sight, writ large for the world to see.

Her demands aren’t many, but she hates “open fires”.

My final example is the short two-pager, “Cross stitch”, about Nettie who’s lost everything, but is surrounded by the macrame and aprons

made with altruistic fervour, no doubt, by women and girls who wanted to give her something to help her settle into a tiny house that had nothing from her life before.

I love the way Thompson, in piece after piece, breaks down popular notions about fires and their aftermath, and shows us the more likely reality.

So far, I’ve focused on the bushfire theme, but one of the lovely things about this collection is how Thompson interweaves other ideas into it. In “Like a wall” and “Jack Frost” she tackles racism and community prejudices. And in “Degustation” she satirises fine dining – degustation menus in particular – as well as the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the wealthy. It’s a delightful, funny story. Indeed, Thompson’s writing overall has a light touch, with a keen eye for the absurd.

Flame tip is a serious collection about a serious subject, and it could so easily have become heavy. However, by varying form, voice and tone, Thompson has produced a book that not only sustains our interest but that, despite its subject matter, is enjoyable to read. And that’s no mean feat.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book

aww2017 badgeKarenlee Thompson
Flame tip: Short fictions
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
166pp.
ISBN: 978 1 925272 73 4

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2017 7:00 am

    The excerpts make this sound like a wonderful read, Sue. Thanks as always for sharing.

    • August 19, 2017 8:44 am

      Thanks Angela… I’m glad the excerpts have done that. It’s a lovely humane book.

  2. August 19, 2017 10:18 am

    I’m so glad you liked it too, though I knew you would.
    Karenlee is down our way doing a book tour this weekend and we are meeting up for coffee and cake at Ros Collins’ place so she may not see this straight away… I’ll email her to make sure she knows about it:)

    • August 19, 2017 12:05 pm

      Oh lovely, Lisa. I’m off to my Jane Austen meeting this afternoon, but will comment on your great post, having now read it, later today. There are some interesting comments there too, that I’d like to engage with. I’ve never met Karenlee but say hello to her from me!!

      • August 19, 2017 12:54 pm

        Will do!

        • ablay1 permalink
          August 21, 2017 5:48 pm

          We (at Hybrid Publishers) just met our author Karenlee for the first time at Ros Collins’ place and had a delightful time talking books and dogs and all kinds of things … amazing what a community we can create even without meeting face to face. But I’m so glad now we’ve seen the author behind the wonderful book.

        • August 21, 2017 5:58 pm

          Lucky you Anna. It’s wonderful I think how easily books connect people. I fond that again and again.

  3. August 19, 2017 4:46 pm

    I look forward to reading Karenlee’s collection. Thanks Sue, for this wonderful review.

  4. August 19, 2017 6:05 pm

    My apologies to Karenlee but I’m rarely tempted by short stories – you’re just getting to like someone and it’s all over!

    • August 19, 2017 7:06 pm

      What a shame Bill! You miss out on great writing by giving short stories a miss!

      I think short story lovers read for different reasons to those who don’t like short stories. I do like getting lost in another world like you do in a novel (like Jane Austen’s world for example!!) but I also like to have authors sock it to me with something tight, surprising, witty or clever or shocking. Short stories do this in ways that novels can’t because they have to take time develop their plot, characters, ideas. I love that short stories can pack a punch – can get you in your gut (or heart) or your funny bone – and engage your brain, in a few pages. I’ve loved short stories from my childhood – like my Enid Blyton Bedtime Story Books

      Sorry for the lecture! I’m just always sorry when I hear people say this!

      • August 19, 2017 7:24 pm

        Well put! And apologies not needed. Blyton makes me think – I read a lot of short fiction at that age, in annuals and so on (I remember two young men with a flying car which landed at the starting line of a car race, which of course they won) but I think I preferred novels. Though really, until I was 30 I read anything that was put in front of me. Then the kids came.

        • August 19, 2017 8:44 pm

          Thanks Bill for not taking offence at my little tirade! I love the comment “then the kids came”. That doesn’t need any further elucidation!

  5. ian darling permalink
    August 21, 2017 6:59 pm

    Sounds an interesting collection – and I think that term “short fictions” is quite a useful one. By the way, I discovered my first Text Classic last week. It was Robin Dalton’s splendid memoir Aunts Up the Cross which I really enjoyed. Must take a look at books published by Hybrid!

    • August 21, 2017 8:44 pm

      Oh that’s great Ian. How did you discover it? I’ve heard great things about that book. I’ve reviewed a few Hybrid books over the years. They are one of our great small independent publishers.

      • ian darling permalink
        August 21, 2017 9:29 pm

        In a charity shop in Edinburgh. It is a masterpiece of economy with a beautiful light touch…would recommend it to any reader.

        • August 22, 2017 9:18 am

          Ah, I wonder if it was a travelling Aussie who donated it there. It’s dearly one to read – “masterpiece of economy” appeals to me.

  6. Jess Andreatta permalink
    August 23, 2017 5:18 pm

    Great review of a fabulous book. I agree with your comments on form. My reading of the book was a capturing of community – tricky to do and not something achievable in a novel of ‘standard’ length perhaps. A slim volume, though fit to length given its varying fictions. Thought provoking is a cliché, but this is what her book is. An Australian voice if ever there was one – I hope more people hear it. Given your review I trust more will.

    • August 23, 2017 5:26 pm

      Thanks Jess, I like your comment about community. That’s exactly what she does, and with an authenticity about people that I liked. Let’s hope blog reviews do encourage more readers because the main press rarely covers these small publishers’ works.

  7. August 23, 2017 7:57 pm

    Thank you for this very thoughtful review WG. I am so pleased you connected with ‘Flame Tip’.

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  1. August 2017 Round-up: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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