Margaret Hickey, Rural dreams (#BookReview)

Rural dreams is another collection of short stories from small independent publisher MidnightSun, and it’s another good one. I hadn’t heard of Margaret Hickey before, but her website says that she’s won a number of awards and is a performed playwright. Relevant to this book is that Hickey grew up in small country towns in Victoria and currently lives in that state’s northeast. In other words, in this book about rural lives, she knows whereof she speaks.

Like most short story collections, Rural dreams comprises stories told in different voices and points-of-view. The narrators, male and female, range from teens to the middle-aged, and the stories are told in first person and third person voices, with one told second person. The tone varies from funny to sad, from reflective to scary, and the subject matter represents a wide gamut of rural lives, from those who have left to those who want to leave, from those who are farmers to those who are sea-changers. And, of course, it encompasses a range of rural issues, to do with farming, dying land and dying towns, for example, as well as those more universal human issues involving love and loss, joy and fear.

I greatly enjoyed most of the stories – there’s usually one or two in a collection that doesn’t quite connect. The opening story, “Saturday morning”, fired the perfect opening salvo. Told third person, it’s about a young engineering student named Simon who now lives in a share house in Melbourne but who gets up early every Saturday morning, through winter, to drive about three hours home to play football. Even he wonders why he does it, given the way it disrupts his weekend, but, as he hits “the shire boundaries”

… there it comes, that big ball of a sun, that big ball of orange rising up over the horizon. It jolts him every time. Rays light up the stone fences, hit the trees and illuminates the paddocks. The old gums shimmer green and grey in the early morning light and world appears golden quiet. It’s like it is every Saturday, a new era.

They might have a chance today.

He’s home.

“This place, it gets to you”, says the old coach, in “Coach”. And place, of course, underpins most of these stories, whether it’s the Wimmera or Mallee or Ninety Mile Beach in Gippsland.

Counterpointing our narrator in “Saturday morning” is the young Year 12 student in the next story, “Glory days”. Living in the dry Wimmera, he is sweating his ATAR score, dreaming of escape to the city where there’ll be “no more discussions about rain and cows, it will be all about novels and films and experience”.

And so the stories continue, wending across the state, and further afield. “A bit of scrapbooking” promotes the joys of living in the oft-maligned Surfers Paradise in southeast Queensland. Reminiscent a little of Kath and Kim, this story contrasts our narrator’s life in Surfers with her son’s and his partner’s in Melbourne. She just can’t understand his move there for, he told her, “a bit of culture”:

Well, I’ve never understood that. We’ve got culture all around us up here.

Take Jupiter’s Casino–it’s full of all sorts! You’ve got your Sheiks, your Maoris, your South Australians. And you can buy your sushi, your ravioli and your chicken schnitzel in every dining establishment. Every kweezeen you like.

A first person voice is the perfect choice for this story. It made me laugh. Its humour combined with a warm touch at the end makes it just the right antidote – can an antidote come first? – to the darker story, “Desolate”, which follows. This story, and the longest one in the collection “The Precipice”, are the darkest stories here. In “Desolate” our sea-changing narrator from St Kilda, whose “barely disguised air of yuppiedom did little to hide the threat of violence that lurked beneath”, finds that beautiful deserted beaches harbour their own issues. The opening to this story is deliberate:

It’s one of those days that almost kills you; it’s that beautiful.

In “The precipice” and “The Renovation” the titles are pointedly metaphorical, with the former being about domestic violence which is clearly not confined to cities. This story builds up slowly from a therapeutic bushwalk to one of horror for the three women involved. The end, though, is perfect. Hickey, who clearly loves rural living, is realistic rather than rosy about it. She references violence, drought, and issues like the potentially damaging health impact of chemicals, without being didactic or polemical. She know the characters too, like the middle-aged man still living at home who just “likes birds” of the feathered variety (“Twitcher”) or “town weirdo” Joe who cares about the land regardless of the locals (“Overcoat Joe”) or the single-mum who stands up for her scholarship-winning son at his hoity-toity private school (“Mind your language”).

As many contemporary Australian writers are increasingly doing, Hickey also incorporates references to Indigenous Australian lives and culture. She doesn’t attempt to speak for them, but these references suggest an awareness that’s important. Anna, in “The precipice”, remembers a place called “the Leap for the stories of Aboriginal families herded there by whites in the early days of settlement”; Ruby in “The renovation” is told about the middens in the community she’s moved to; Peter remembers the scar trees in “Binky”.

Finally, while the stories are stand-alone, a few are subtly linked. Kate Brunt, a netball player from the town mentioned by Simon (“Saturday morning”), is one of the young travellers in “The wanderer”. The coach (“Coach”) briefly mentions Simon. These links have no overall narrative significance, but they have a nice grounding effect.

Rural dreams is a love letter to rural Australia, one that recognises the tensions and challenges, as well as the warmth and community. Hickey gently mocks Australia’s ongoing romance with the bush, giving us instead an image that is real and human. A truly engaging read.

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Margaret Hickey
Rural dreams
Adelaide: MidnightSun, 2020
ISBN: 9781925227680

(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun)

32 thoughts on “Margaret Hickey, Rural dreams (#BookReview)

    • Haha Lisa, though it’s not so much “the scrapbooking” as her attitude to Surfers Paradise and how much better it is than Melbourne. She writes about her son’s partner “But I can’t be cross at her for too long because she was brought up to be angry. That’s what they’re like in Melbourne. Poor things. Huddling around their soy lattes and pretending to like opera”. I mean, you’ve got to laugh.

  1. Hadn’t heard of Midnight Sun publishers. Googled them and it went straight to a Twilight series book by Stephanie Myers, lol. . I knew that wasn’t you so googled again and found them. Will follow them. Looks like they publish some interesting books.

  2. Given my recent trip through some of these regions, I’m now pretty keen to dip into these stories. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ve also discovered the poet Louise Crisp who writes eco-poetry about the Monaro/Gippsland areas.

    • Oh thanks Brona, I hadn’t heard of her. I’m confident that as a person who likes road-tripping like we do, you would enjoy this book. There are some good landscape descriptions, which I haven’t shared here, as well as interesting characters and stories.

  3. Reminded me, “Saturday Morning”, of a couple of Peter Temple’s non-Jack Irish novels ..
    Yesyes, I know that’s irrelevant; but it’s praise .. 😀

    • Peter Temple! Now I really have died and gone to writers heaven. I’m a real fan of PT and felt so sad when he died. What a loss. The Broken Shore and Truth would have to be my favourite of his books, although I do like them all. I do think he has been a big influence on my writing, so well done M-R – you’ve made me very happy.
      Marg Hickey

  4. I really enjoyed this collection, too, Sue, especially ‘…Scrapbooking’ for its unexpected warmth, ‘Binky’ and ‘Saturday Morning’. The darker stories didn’t work as well for me, but maybe that’s because my tolerance for crime fiction is at an all-time low. But I’d recommend this as a strong collection.

  5. Great review Sue. I have just finished reading this collection and I did love that ‘grounding’ effect of the subtle links. Had a few of those moments of ‘recognising’ myself or people I know (as I have done watching Kath and Kim too) and I laughed out loud a few times.

  6. Dear Whispering Gums,
    What a treat to read this review! I’ve just returned from camping in Croajingolong National Park. Tired and grumpy with the unpacking and laundry, I did something I promised myself I would never do – I googled my name – and I came across this lovely review. Thank you very much Sue, this review really makes me happy. I’m so pleased you enjoyed Rural Dreams and recognized all the things in it I hoped readers would. You have made my day! This laundry pile does not seem nearly as big now.


    • I don’t write to make authors happy Margaret, but to share my responses to a book. However, I am always thrilled when authors do enjoy my reviews and particularly so when they feel I’ve got what they intended. Hopefully, that means they’ve written well and I’ve read well. Says she offering some mutual backslapping! And, of course, I’m very happy if my review made the laundry pile smaller! Truly though, it was a really enjoyable read.

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