The first thing to note about HC Gildfind’s short story collection, The worry front, is its striking, inspired cover. Designed by Susan Miller, it features a weather map which captures the central motif of the title story, but it also suggests the unsettled lives which characterise the book. Gildfind, however, writing a post on the publisher’s blog ascribes another meaning too, noting the link between maps and stories. She says that both “guide us: they locate us in the present by showing us where we have been and where we might go in the future.” Both can also represent the abstract and concrete domains in which we live and operate – and where they might intersect.
But now, the book. It contains ten short stories and a novella, titled “Quarry”. All but one of the stories have been published before – in respected literary journals like Meanjin, Griffith Review, Westerly and Southerly. “Quarry” in fact appeared in the Griffith Review’s novella edition back in 2015. Gildfind then is an accomplished writer, and yet I hadn’t been aware of her. I am now, though, and I’m impressed.
I wasn’t completely sure that I would be, however, when I started the collection. “Ferryman” is a grim, gritty story about an angry man. I wasn’t sure that I was ready for such anger, albeit understandable in the circumstances – but the writing, particularly the rhythm and poetry of it, appealed, so I kept on reading. I’m glad I did, because the next story, the title story – “The worry front” – got me in completely. While the first story is told third person through a man’s eyes, this one is first person in the voice of an eighty-year-old woman. Like “Ferryman”, it’s a powerful story – but this time about a widowed woman who, all her life, has been dogged by “the worry front” but who, when confronted with the realisation that she has cancer, takes matters into her own hand with a breathtakingly original plan. It’s one of those stories where, at the start, you think, “is what I think is happening, what is really happening?” Well yes, it is.
And so the stories continue – varied in gender and voice, but often about something a little out of the ordinary or from a slightly offbeat point of view. The third story, “Gently, gently” is, for example, told second person. It’s a woman speaking about herself, but the second person voice engages us intimately in her life and feelings, drawing us in. It’s about a couple and the three hens they acquire. A chook goes missing – and the couple’s reactions highlight the tension in their relationship. Violence ensues. Like other stories in the book, it treads familiar ground but then turns a corner that forces us to see it from different angles. The relationship dynamic is not as simple as it might have first seemed. The next story, “Eat. Shit. Die” is told in two alternating voices – Leo’s in first person, and Nina’s in second. Both are lonely, and both have – hmm – gut troubles. Nina can’t stop eating, and Leo is having trouble with his s******g, but these are, as you might expect, also symptomatic of something else.
The birds and other animals, and food and eating, that appear in these two stories, recur in many of the book’s stories. Sometimes they reflect emotional states and other times they provide conduits for resolution. In the novella, “Quarry”, a stray black dog kickstarts our damaged protagonist Luke’s return from his agonising loneliness.
These recurring motifs underpin, as you’d expect, recurring themes. One is the interrogation, sometimes explicit, sometimes not, of what is normal. And another is that universal human one of longing for meaningful connection. Some characters eschew it because it hasn’t proven positive (“The wished for”), some are resigned to not having it because they feel unloved or unlovable (“Quarry”), and some actively seek ways of achieving it (“Solomon Jeremy Rupert Jones”). In most cases, this meaningful connection means a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, which, not surprisingly, raises the spectre of gender differences – which issue does run through many of the stories. There’s violence, direct or indirect, in several – but there’s nuance here rather than reliance on standard tropes or simple explanations.
Margaret River Press has produced Book Club Notes for the book. I’m not usually interested in such notes, because they don’t usually address my reading interests, but these are good. There are thoughtful questions for each story, ones that ask for the meaning or significance of events, symbols, actions, and/or characters, rather than the more simple “what would you do” sort of question that you often see.
There are also some general questions for the overall collection. One of these is: “Do you think it is important to ‘like’ a character when reading fiction?” This is a good question because it confronts this problematic issue head on. The worry front does not have many immediately likeable characters – but most characters ring true, and that’s the critical thing for me. We may not, for example, decide to do what the woman in “The worry front” does, but her feelings of dismay, and her resignation to and acceptance of things she can’t change, are true.
Another general question asks “which stories – or characters – provoked the strongest thoughts and feelings in you?” What a good question! I love that it doesn’t ask which one/s you like the best. For me, three stories in particular stand out – “Ferryman” because its anger was so viscerally shocking, “The worry front” because its protagonist’s plan is so surprising while her feelings are so comprehensible, and “The quarry” because Luke’s predicament engaged my heart from the start.
Not all stories grabbed me equally, but there are other memorable ones, including “What there is”. I related to its narrator’s searching for “the body-jolt of recognition” in books. Ironically, a significant jolt that she receives comes from another character, not a book:
You can never change the past. But you can always change how you feel about it.
However, it did come from a book, for me!
It’s hard to do a collection like this justice, but I liked it. I liked its surprising situations. I liked having my expectations unsettled. I also liked its design, and its careful order. It starts and ends with angry men, both of whose anger is caused by the actions of others, by, as Luke sees it, “f*****g men and f*****g women f*****g everything up for everyone forever” (“The quarry”). While it’s uncertain whether our first man will recover, Gildfind does leave us with a sense of hope at the end. I like that too.
The worry front
Margaret River Press, 2018
(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)
17 thoughts on “HC Gildfind, The worry front (#BookReview)”
Super review as always. I need to read more short stories. I like the fact that these are a bit unusual and unsettling. I find that short stories tend to lend themselves to the quirky and the odd.
Thanks Brian … yes, you’re right, they do. I think writers can sometimes flex their creative muscle more easily in short stories – and challenge their readers too!
Sounds interesting. I’ve placed a hold on a copy in my local library.
Oh good La65. It’s quite a different collection.
The book club questions look good. I shall adapt them to my next offering. At my last (The idea of perfection) I asked “Has the author fulfilled her contact with the reader?” And we immediately had a discussion about whether there was a contract, and if so, what was it, before we could look at the question properly.
I’m tempted to buy this book. Got to support the local publishing houses!
Good one Neil – that’s a great question. And I like your idea of applying some of the ones for these stories to other books.
Did your group like The idea of perfection? It’s one of my favourite Grenvilles.
Margaret River Press is a great local press for you – worth checking out.
The Idea of perfection was Gillian’s selection, but she bailed a week before the meeting, so I led the group (wedding preparations to make). I didn’t ask if people like it or not. So Gillian did, as we were packing up to leave. Mixed reception. No one really loved it. Some thought it too slow (which I thought was the whole point of the story), others disliked the caricature of the county town. Gillian and I loved it, and thought it was hilarious. I am reluctant to read any other Grenville – they all look far too serious!
I thought it was hilarious too … with a serious side. Every time I hang out clothes I think of that banker’s wife and all her attempts to prevent wrinkles. And that town. Was it complete caricature? I don’t recollect seeing it that way. How many towns now are working on their heritage to attract tourists? We seem to drive through so many.
More and more these days I read your post and then have to come back to comment. I know these blogs are a form of reading group but – as with talkback radio – I can’t bear to listen to people who know less than me (it’s a fault I know). Luckily you – and Lisa and Emma and Jonathon and so on – know more rather than less so that’s not a problem. But ‘physical’ book groups reminds me of doing accountancy tutorials as a 30 year old with kids straight out of school.
You haven’t been to a physical book group like my two then, Bill! In both I’d say we are all intelligent people with knowledge to offer and all are open to the thoughts and experiences of others. One of these groups is my JA one… The knowledge there of Austen’s books, her biography and English history is deep and extensive with members having different areas of expertise.
I guess what I’m saying is that in most groups – the ones which take books and book discussion seriously – there will be people who know some things more than I do and there’ll be things I know more than some do. This is how we enrich each other.
Or, to be even more long-winded, my sense is that the issue with, say, talk back radio, is not so much knowledge but the ability to think critically and express ideas based on that thinking and in a spirit of enquiry?
I guess that’s true of talkback – lots of opinion backed by little knowledge. I enjoy give and take in discussion so what you say about (your) book groups is reassuring.
That’s how they should work… You have to be careful about who you choose as members.
PS I should also say that while I may know more about some things than you, vice versa is true too!!!
I’m intrigued by your mention of the literary journals/magazines that these first appeared in: are “Westerly” and “Southerly” two different ones which just happened to have similar names? Obviously I would be even less likely to find copies of these in Canada, less likely even than the collection itself (of course novels are easier), but it’s fun to think about.
Yes , Buried; two different ones. Westerly, strangely enough 😉, comes from Western Australia and has been going since 1956. Southerly is even older. It hails from New South Wales and started in 1939. We, probably like you, have some wonderful literary magazines that I wish I had time to read. Some of them now have free online components you could check out. Southerly, does, for example.