Described as “twenty macabre and deliciously enjoyable stories for readers of Fiona McFarlane and Lauren Groff”, Chris Womersley’s newest book – his debut collection of short stories – wasn’t necessarily a natural fit for me. I haven’t read Lauren Groff, but I have read and really liked Fiona McFarlane’s clever, memorable, The night guest (my review). However, the macabre is not something I naturally gravitate to. Still, I did like The great unknown (my review), edited by Angela Meyer, and I have been wanting to read Chris Womersley for some time, so I decided to put aside my reservations and give it a shot. I’m glad I did, because although there certainly is an element of the macabre here, the stories aren’t all so macabre that I felt the need to strap in for a shivery ride as the promos were also suggesting. This is not meant to put off those who like shivery rides, but to encourage those who don’t. It’s meant to say, in other words, that there’s something for most readers here.
The stories, in other words, do offer some variety. Most are told in first person male voices, but these voices range from children to teens to grown men, from sons and fathers, to brothers and friends, to husbands. There’s a hunchback, a junkie or two – and three stories use female voices. Despite this variety, however, there is an overall similarity in tone – somewhat melancholic, somewhat reflective. Many, in fact, are stories about something that happened in the past so they have that tone of – hmm, regret, or, if not that, of an uneasiness that has carried through to the present. Or sometimes, it’s just resignation. If you like nostalgia, this is not for you, as the first story makes clear:
My God, those suburban evenings, so full of hope and all its little victims. (“Headful of bees”)
So, what are they about? Fundamentally, and not surprisingly, they are about relationships – families, friends, neighbours, strangers, and, particularly, fathers and sons. Many relationships are under some sort of internal or external stress, or are unusual in some way. Most of these stories can be simply weird and, in some cases, even hopeful. But in other relationships, there’s power at play, and it is more often in these that the macabre, if not downright horror, ensues. In some stories, then, like the opening “Headful of bees”, a young person is mystified by the behaviour of an adult neighbour, while in others, such as the second one, “The house of special purpose”, a well-intentioned or naive person is cruelly taken advantage of by those who wield power.
The stories have been ordered in a way that manages our emotions. The truly macabre stories are interspersed with others, which reduces tension a little but also keeps us guessing. Will this story, we wonder, disturb and unnerve, or simply sadden us? There are a few truly shocking stories, and they include my favourites. Naming them, however, would spoil their impact. As one character, not from one of these stories, says:
You think you know people, but they always have something hidden away. It’s an awful lesson, corrosive … (“The age of terror”)
Fortunately, the collection ends on a story that, while containing tragedy, also offers hope about humanity. It’s not a happy story, but neither is it a complete downer, so we close the book feeling at least a little reassured that our journey has not been completely in vain.
Of course, there’s more to enjoying this book than the variety in and challenge of its stories. There’s also the writing. Womersley’s plotting and language is exquisite. I enjoyed his wordplays, and his use of metaphor. In “The middle of nowhere”, the drug-addicted protagonists are both literally and spiritually lost, and in “Growing pain”, a young adolescent girl’s grief and sense of alienation is manifested in a strange, physical way. Water features in many of the stories, as is signalled by the epigram from Moby Dick which ends with “as everybody knows meditation and water are wedded forever”. However, as everyone also knows, water is a paradoxical element – “another dimension, a netherworld” – that can both give and take. And so it is in these stories. Some of the most gruesome of them have water (or a place of water) at their core.
I said above that the stories are about relationships, which they are, but of course these relationships are explored through stories that deal with the things that confront us as humans. There are grieving parents and children, and people with regrets and failed aspirations. There are dreamers, junkies and mentally ill people. There’s birth and death, there’s deep love and desire for true connection, but there’s also revenge, child abuse and cruelty. Many of the stories explore, in some way, “the chasm that exists in all of us – between who we imagine ourselves to be and the person we truly are” (“The mare’s nest”). A character in “Dark the water, so deep the night” tells the young protagonist that “We tell stories to impose order upon the world, to give things meaning. To give us hope.” If there’s one thing we learn here, it’s that stories, on their own, can’t impose order. More often, they illuminate the chaos!
Of course, I didn’t love them all equally, and there is, as I’ve already said, some sameness to them. The tone is similar, and many are told by a narrator remembering the past. Also, many of the protagonists are young people trying to comprehend the adults around them, though there are older protagonists, including a 79-year-old woman in “The age of terror”.
However, I didn’t find one of them boring. This is not surprising because, although A lovely and terrible thing is Womersley’s first collection, he has been writing short stories for a long time. Sixteen of the twenty here, in fact, have been published before, from 2006 on, in some of the best literary magazines around, including Granta, Meanjin, The Griffith Review. Not a bad record, eh? The stories are, to be a little corny, lovely and terrible things. They take us, as another title in the collection suggests, to “the very edge of things”. What I like about them is that they do this with such control that, even when they push us to the limit, they feel true. Highly recommended.
A lovely and terrible thing: Short story collection
Sydney: Picador, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)