Lynette Washington’s debut collection of short stories, Plane Tree Drive, reminded me a little of Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking dogs (my review). Both are collections of stories revolving around a location, and in both the location is in the Adelaide region. There are differences though. Clarkson’s book is a little grittier with an overall theme of community undergoing social change, while Washington’s book is the portrait of a suburban street. There is change, of course, but the change is more broadly human – breakups, ageing and retirement, generation gaps, friendship and dementia, illness and death – although contemporary issues are also touched on.
Like Clarkson’s book too, Washington’s has some continuing storylines – such as Jennifer who is unhappily married to Dan while pining for her first love, Alexander – that are interspersed with the stories of other people. I liked this. Not only do these ongoing storylines provide a lovely sense of cohesion for the whole, but they also reflect a typical neighbourhood street. By this I mean that in any of our neighbourhoods there are people we know well, those we know a little, and others whom we only know passingly. And so, in Plane Tree Drive, there’s Jennifer who appears regularly; there are others like Maurice, Alice, Amily and Faraj who appear more than once, sometimes as a reference in another person’s story; and there are those who only appear in their own story.
To make all this work, Washington pays careful attention to structure. The overall order is chronological, driven primarily by Jennifer’s story, but the collection starts and ends with the other main continuing story, that of musician Maurice. His final section cleverly but light-handedly brings several of the characters together, but I won’t tell you how! The book is divided into sections – I think that’s the best way to describe it – which are named for the characters they cover, but some sections comprise small chapters. For example, a section titled Faraj, Coralie and Ruby, which focuses on Afghani asylum-seeker Faraj, has two short chapters, “Housing Needs Assessment” and “The Bay”. And this brings me to form …
Many of the stories are short, in fact very short, and most are told first person, but there’s some interesting variety, some experimenting with form, too. There’s a dialogue between Maurice and his wife Jacqui (“He said/She said”), some diary entries by the teenaged Poppy (“Dear diary”), several government employee reports on Faraj’s application for housing (“Housing Needs Assessment”), some social media commentary (in the cheeky “Scarlett’s shed”), and even a flow-chart from IT expert Sarah (“Oma’s fruit cake”). This playing with form – which brings with it changes in tone – break up what could, in other hands, become a tedious and melancholic parade of first person voices.
Oh dear, I’ve spent a lot of time describing the book and how it works but not much on whether I enjoyed it – so I’ll do that now. Of course I enjoyed it! How could any reader who is interested in the lives of people not enjoy a book which pokes into the nooks and crannies of all our lives? There are stories with a political bent, albeit told from personal not political perspectives. These include the aforementioned Faraj and his search for a home, a couple (Stella and Graham) who travel overseas to access euthanasia legally, and a woman (Coralie) watching the demolition of a loved theatre. I like that Washington doesn’t proselytise, but simply shows how people are affected by and react to these situations. There are lighter stories, such as Marg who talks to animals, particularly her neighbour’s badly behaved cat (“That cat”).
And there are, dare I use that cliché, “poignant” stories, such as, to give an example, Martha and Charles (“Gaps between boxes” and “So much sand and so much water”). They are a retired couple who have been together since childhood but who, at this point in their lives, suddenly find themselves at odds. She wants to adventure – to “seek out the gaps between the boxes” they’ve been ticking all their lives – but he just wants peace. He thinks “the boxes made a darn good life”. This story is gently and warmly told. No fireworks, just hope and acceptance on both sides.
There’s exploration in the writing – in form in particular – as I’ve already said, but the stories are accessible. This is the sort of short story collection that should have wide appeal. The use of recurring characters makes it appealing to those who prefer novels, while the playing with the short story form and structure provides interest for the short story lover.
Washington, who has appeared here before as editor of Breaking beauty (my review), precedes her book with an epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The great Gatsby. The quote concludes with “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I wouldn’t say I was repelled, albeit some characters are more appealing than others, but Plane Tree Drive does contain a wide variety of life which makes it an engaging and yes, enchanting even, read. Like many books from smaller publishers, it deserves a wider audience than it will probably get.
(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun Publishing)