Well-behaved women is a debut collection of short stories by Western Australian writer Emily Paull. It is one of those collections that has a unique title, and what a perfect – and teasing – title it is for a collection of stories focused on women.
It has, you won’t be surprised to hear, the usual mothers, grandmothers, sisters and wives, but there are also teachers and students, writers, a step-father and step-daughter, and a vagrant woman. They span all ages. Most of the stories are told first person, with a few third person ones, and in nearly all the narrator or protagonist is, of course, female.
The collection starts with a bang, with a story described on the back page, so I’m not spoiling it, as “a world champion free-diver disappears during routine training” (“The sea also waits”). It’s the ideal opener because it’s about a woman who has chosen a dangerous sport because it’s – dangerous. She’s a woman whose “devil-may-care coastal ways” seem to disgust seemingly better behaved women with their painted nails and carefully tanned skin. It sets up the collection well as one likely to explore the nuances of women’s lives and the consequences of their decisions – oops, behaviour.
And so, from this first story on, Paull interrogates women’s lives from diverse angles. The stories read, mostly, like lovely little slices of life rather than as dramatic stories with twists. I like these sorts of stories, provided they ring true to life, because I’m curious about the choices people make. Paull has probably pored over these stories, honing them to the essential, but what we see is writing that looks easy. It flows well, and the stories show rather than tell, leaving readers to draw their conclusions. There’s nothing particularly inventive about the style or structure. Paull uses foreshadowing and flashbacks, traditionally, but judicially, to move her narratives along. The end result is a collection of accessible, well-crafted stories about relatable characters in, mostly, Western Australian settings.
The second story, “Miss Lovegrove”, has a young female drama student talking about her teacher. This teacher feels the need to tell her students the realities of life – “you will most likely never be on television at all during your careers, which will be short” – and she teaches our narrator a very cruel lesson. She is certainly not a well-behaved woman. Is she brutal? (Yes.) Is she bitter? (Probably.) Is she doing her young student a favour as she intimates? (We need to decide.) Fortunately, the next story, “Crying in public”, is gentler. It’s about the first real heart-break and a grandmother’s wisdom. Unlike “Miss Lovegrove”, Grandma wants to nurture her charge through the pain of the real world. This idea neatly links the two stories. There is, in fact, careful crafting in the order of the stories, with subtle links connecting one story to the next. I enjoyed identifying what I thought were the links!
Anyhow, other stories tell of friends found and lost, of coming out, of grief. In some, the stories could be any of us – an old high school flame returning to see if she can recover a past love (“Down south”), a sister grieving over her terminally ill sister (“Sister, madly, deeply”), a young woman discombobulated by her grandparents’ death (“Nana’s house”), a woman trying to fit the the image of the perfect wife (“The settlement”). But some are a little more dramatic, such as that about a woman whose backyard is found to hold a human skeleton (“From under the ground”), or the warm-hearted story about a vagrant woman caught in a bushfire (“The things we rescued”), or the tragic coming out story (“Picnic at Green’s Pool”).
What I most liked about the stories – even those that were more dramatic in flavour – is that the people are believable. Their emotions and reactions, in the main, are those of “normal”, flawed human beings. They make mistakes, like the young woman who leads on a colleague she’s not really interested in (“Nana’s house). They eat too much or too little, in a struggle to be themselves (“Dora”). And so on. You could see this as a feminist book. The title certainly suggests there’s an element of this in Paull’s thinking – but the book is not stridently so. The title is more wry, than barbed.
While most of the stories are average short story length, one, “Font de Gracia”, is a little longer. Its premise is a rather typical teacher-student affair, but it is well handled and resolved, without didacticism. It has some lovely writing, such as this description of mother-daughter tension:
Joana snatched up her bag without breaking eye contact with her mother. Their anger was like the pull between magnets.
It’s hard to pick favourites, but I did like the last two. “Versions of herself” is about a prickly 90-year-old in a retirement village – no, not in aged care or a nursing home, but independently living in a retirement village. It’s one of the broken-heart stories. Shirley Carruthers is not the most likeable woman around, but Paull, as she does with all her characters, encourages us to see and feel beneath the surface, to understand the whys. The point for me is that we don’t have to like everyone, but we can be kind.
The final story, “The woman at the Writers Festival”, concludes the collection beautifully, with a cheeky exploration of the writing life – particularly its challenges for women – and it does have a twist.
Well-behaved women, then, is a tight, engaging collection of stories about ordinary women, and the messiness of life. Rather than offer answers, it challenges readers to think about these messes, and consider what could be done to tidy them up a bit – next time around. Another good read from the people at Margaret River Press.
Withcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)