I have been champing at the bit to read local author Stephanie Buckle’s debut short story collection, Habits of silence, ever since I attended its launch in August by John Clanchy at the Canberra Writers Festival. The readings that both Clanchy and Buckle herself gave from the book grabbed my attention and convinced me that this would be a book I’d like. However, it had to wait its turn in my review copy pile. Finally its number came up – and I devoured it. I will never understand why some readers don’t like short stories. At least, I understand their reasons in my head, but I don’t in my readerly heart! (If that makes sense.)
John Clanchy, in launching this beautifully designed book, spoke about its title which is not, as commonly occurs, the title of one of the stories inside. When this happens, it’s logical to consider what the title means, and for Clanchy it reflects the book’s interest in communication, and particularly in the part played by silence. Silence, he said, can be positive or negative, and both of these are explored in Buckle’s stories. This is not to say that all the stories are specifically about, or even feature silence in a major way. But even in those that don’t, there’s usually some missed communication or miscommunication that might just as well be silence.
And now I come to that part that’s always a challenge with reviewing short story collections, which is whether to quickly survey all the stories or focus on a couple or try to do a bit of both. I usually opt for the last of these, and will probably do so again here. One day I’ll come up with an exciting new way to discuss short story collections, but I haven’t found it yet!
So, the survey part. There are fourteen stories, some of which have been published before, with a couple having won awards. There are both first-person and third-person stories – providing lovely variety – and the protagonists range in age, situation, and gender. It feels like a collection that could only be written by someone with a good few decades of life experience under her belt (but perhaps that’s denying what imagination can do). I’m certainly not saying that Buckle has experienced all she writes about, but the stories do feel imbued with a deep sense of knowingness.
One of the stories that is specifically about silence is titled, well, “the silence”. It’s about two brothers, Jim and his older brother George Clayton (love this cheeky last name), who live in a country town and have run the family furniture business for years, without speaking to each other. Each works alternate days and George communicates with Jim by letter, because, it seems
Silence is safe. Silence commits to nothing. Far easier to be silent than to speak.
Except, this silence is burning Jim up – that, and his brother’s complete inflexibility about changing anything in their increasingly anachronistic shop to bring it up to date. I liked this story, the beautiful realisation of the characters, and its tentative but by no means certain resolution.
Another story in which silence is central is “fifty years”. This is one of the stories read from at the launch, and it tantalised me. It concerns a woman who has been rendered mute by a stroke. She’s in hospital, attended by her husband of fifty years and her daughter, from whose point of view the story is told. Here’s part of the excerpt read at the launch. It comes after the husband has been prattling on with platitudes:
And that’s when I see it, the first time. It’s the expression you make when you think no one’s looking. The one you make to yourself, with your back turned. It’s the one that makes all the others look like masks, as if all the cups of tea, and all the ironed shirts, are just pretending. She turns from me and regards him quite steadily, but as if she sees him down the wrong end of a telescope, or as if he’s a fly buzzing still against the window, that she briefly thinks she might stir herself to deal with, but can’t be bothered. Are you still here? it says.
If that doesn’t make you want to read this book, then I’d say you’re a lost cause! Buckle’s insights into human relationships make you sit up and pay attention – and her honed spare writing is well-suited to her theme.
The second story in the collection, “sex and money”, is also about a lonely wife who feels unappreciated. Like the husband in “fifty years”, Frank appears to know little about the wife he lives with, and is more likely to help a neighbour than do something she’s asked. And yet, in his head, he loves – at least he desires – his wife. Rose meanwhile finds her own way of obtaining pleasure. It’s all to do with money, but not what you might be thinking. Buckle’s playing with ideas of lust, desire and money here is cheeky – and telling.
But not all marriages, not all relationships in the book, are poor. The woman in “the man on the path” has been grieving her beloved husband’s death for four years. She has come to the Lakes, a favourite holiday place of theirs, for a break, but feels out of place amongst all the happy holidaying couples. Then, out walking, she meets a man on the path, but a “failure of courage”, an inability to communicate appropriately, sees an opportunity to make a connection pass. She perseveres with her walking, however, and, well, you never know, there could be a second chance …
There’s nothing like mental illness to focus us on essential truths about humanity. Lillian, in the opening story “lillian and meredith”, is developing dementia – her “words scatter in all directions” – but, like many of the book’s characters, she’s lonely so when new patient Meredith appears she sees her opportunity. Meredith is welcoming, but when money goes missing, it all falls apart and poor Lillian is handled with less than kindness by the staff. This is just one of several stories which feature mental illness, with three of them – “us and them”, “frederick”, and “no change” – set in the same place, Cedar Grove Psychiatric Facility. There is no cross-over in characters, but there’s something nicely grounding in returning to a familiar place, even if when we get there we are confronted by questions about duty of care and our frequent failure, for whatever reasons, systemic or personal, to provide it.
Buckle’s stories, then, explore all sorts of relationships – between couples, siblings, parents and children, friends, teachers and students, and even staff and patients – showing that none are immune from communication challenges, from silences that hide true feelings to words which do the same, from convictions that relationships are true to realisations that they aren’t, from attempts to connect to refusals to do so. Although some stories impacted me more than others, I was engaged by them all, reminding me once again why I love short stories. It’s their little nuggety insights into human nature – and Buckle’s Habits of silence provides just that.
(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)