Amanda is on a roll, reading several Aussie women writers, so when she offered me a review of Jennifer Down’s collection of short stories, Pulse points, of course I said yes. I love her opening explanation of why she loves short stories – I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I love short stories. They can be an introduction to literature, restore your faith in fiction and inspire awe in a mere few pages. The good ones shed light on the human condition – who we are, what we do and why we do it. The great ones perceive and portray human complexity in original and vivid colours.
Pulse Points is a collection of 14 short stories by Jennifer Down, pulse points being the metaphor for emotional life changing moments. The stories are of varying quality. At best Down has a keen ear for dialogue, well-rounded characterisation and with sensitive depiction of issues. The stories are not plot driven, they do not deal with large macro political issues, no biting satire, no morphing magical realism and no laugh out loud moments. That is not a bad thing. That is just not Down’s style.
Instead the stories are focused on brief periods, sometime even moments, of the characters’ lives which are used to explore universal themes: loss, mourning, the treatment of women, rural isolation, disfranchisement and childhood neglect appear several times. These are stories about humanity.
Down utilises a traditional treatment of the short story form, the timeframe is largely linear with some flashbacks. The voices are polyphonic, switching between first and third person.
For my tastes, there were too many discordant stories and the linkage between the main title and the stories was too loose. I have been influenced by the style of Elizabeth Strout where characters in her short stories (Olive Kitteridge and Anything is possible) not only appear consistently though the novel linking one story to another but also providing an alternate prospective. Similarly, Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of maladies) can write distinct, unconnected short stories but her ability to stick to an overarching theme is more disciplined.
As such Pulse points is best treated as a “pick and mix” rather than being read as a whole in one sitting.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Down is quoted as saying “If I’m trying to bring attention to a particular moment, a point of tension or an image, you need to let it have a bit of space, to let it breathe. So, for me, having a more economical approach to language is one way of trying to achieve that.” Pulse points is populated with pared-down prose, but that is different from narrative restraint.
To that end, I prefer the stories in the collection that do not rely on melodramatic plot devices, sudden improbable violence or tragedy to propel the narrative. In some cases, the violent event jars the pacing of the story and interrupts the crescendo, distracting the reader and making one question the focus of the story (the eponymous “Pulse points” and “Vaseline”). For deft pacing and the seamless use of fictional violence (or the threat of) – George Saunders (Victory lap) and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.
Down’s strongest pieces are gentle, subtle explorations of profound themes using quotidian details and sound so authentic, they could be autobiographical: in “Convalescence” dealing with the imbalance in a relationship, the sifting power balance and the sacrifice both partners endure. In “Pressure okay“, Down manages to convey the gently mourning of the loss of a spouse who served as the conduit for an endearing father to understand his feisty adult daughter. “Turncoat” similarly explores the slow burn of mid-life crisis. Like most readers, I love recognising myself in characters, creating empathy and the sense of being understood.
She is at her best when dealing with sensitive, analytical, educated characters; less so when she tries to portray the mindless rage and violence of teenage boys in “Dogs” (the weakest piece). The narrative is too brief and too horrific to allow any three-dimensional view of the characters or their motivation.
Similarly, those stories set in Australia or dealing with Australians aboard (“Convalescence” and “Aokigaraha“) resonate more than pieces set in the US (“Vaseline” and “Eternal father”) where Down does not have the vernacular or familiarity to make the characters sound genuine. As a reader I was grappling for place names or dialogue to try to identify which country the story was taking part in to give the mind a sense of location and what to expect of the characters.
Some of her writing is wholly original, comparing the contents of a women’s handbag to the movements at the bottom of the seabed and at other times – “she dyed her hair the colour of sunshine” – her writing is more prosaic. Frequently, her stories end too abruptly, another paragraph or two even in a vignette could provide direction and closure for the reader.
A reader can tell that a lot of work has gone into crafting and refining these stories and it shows. But Down is still a very young writer and compared to more assured short story collections this falls short. This is Down’s second publication. Her first, the Magic hour is a widely acclaimed novel. I look forward to her future works.