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.
(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)