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Marian Matta, Life, bound (#BookReview)

May 6, 2021

In August 2020, small independent publisher MidnightSun sent me two short story collections, Margaret Hickey’s Rural dreams (reviewed last month), and Marian Matta’s Life, bound. I enjoyed Rural dreams, as some of you may remember, for its exploration of rural lives from multiple angles and points of view. Life, bound is a very different collection. It doesn’t have a stated unifying theme but, like many short stories, it is unified by its characters being ordinary people trying to make the best of the life they have been given – or of the life that, sensibly or not, they’ve made for themselves!

The promotion accompanying the book describes it this way:

Free agents or captives of our past?

In Life, Bound, characters find themselves caught in situations not of their own making, or trapped by ingrained habits, walking in grooves carved out by past events. 

What characterises this collection, beyond this, is the varied tone, from the gothic-influenced opening story “The heart of Harvey’s Lane” to the strongly realist closing stories, “He turned up” and “A bench, a bard, a turning tide”. As with many short story collections, you never quite know what you’re going to get when you turn the page to the next story. In “The heart of Harvey’s Lane” a man becomes a famous photographer off the back of a shocking incident, but, after a while, starts to withdraw from the world, into a very strange house. As he scales down his career, he recognises that

The downward turn in my income almost exactly mirrored the upward turn in my satisfaction.

Nonetheless, the ending, when it comes is disconcerting. Covering a few decades, it’s an engrossing story about the way life can go.

Some stories are shocking, such as the second story “Climb”, about a young boy abused by his step-father, while others are cheeky, such as “Lovely apples” about a loving young couple and the suggestive “Drive my car”. In some stories, abused or overlooked characters get their own back. “Roadkill” is particularly cleverly told – with a great opening – and you have to cheer for the much-maligned Emily who’s not as stupid as they all think. But in other stories, things don’t work out, such as the devastating story about blighted hopes, “He turned up”. This title has a powerful double meaning. Titles in short stories are, I think, particularly important, because, given the form’s brevity, every word must count. Matta uses her titles well. Some are purposefully obscure, not giving anything away except perhaps the literal, as in “Climb”; others are more clearly figurative, as in “Desire lines” or “Lovely apples” or “Three-sixty”; while others are superficially descriptive but contain so much more, as in “A bench, a bard, a turning tide”.

Now, though, let’s get back to the characters “caught in situations not of their own making”. They include an abused boy, a transgender person, a woman caught in domestic violence, a homeless woman. These characters can break our hearts, but in Matta’s hands they are the characters who just might come through. I’m not naming the stories, here, because part of Matta’s skill is in slowly revealing the character’s situation, so why should I tell you here straight off?

Other characters are a mixed bunch, some “trapped by ingrained habits”, others just at a certain stage in their lives where an action has, perhaps, unintended reactions. There’s the alcoholic ex-husband who desires reconnection with his family (“Desire lines”), two sea-changers who meet in their new chosen town and become friends (“Claimed by the sea”), two people post-one-night-stand (“Summer of love”). This last one exemplifies how Matta mixes up her structure. Not all stories are simple, linear chronologies. “Summer of love” is linear, but told from the alternating points of view of the woman and the man, a perfect solution for a story about a one-night-stand.

The varied structure is one aspect of this collection that keeps the reader engaged. The above-mentioned variations in tone are another, plus, of course, the characters and stories themselves, but another is the language. Here, for example, is a character deciding that discretion is the better part of valour:

Jimmy decided not to chase that remark down to a point of clarity.

(Waterwise)

Then there are those phrases that make you laugh, such as this on entitled teenage boys being told off by their headmistress:

They shrugged, just sufficiently out of sync to appear like a music video dance troupe.

(Roadkill)

My last example is Rita – her town’s “voice of authority, the historical society’s walking catalogue” – being unusually flummoxed by a question:

A frown settles slowly on Rita’s face; her infallible memory has tripped over a corrupted file.

(Winston Mahaffey’s hat”

The stories are all, fundamentally, about humans – the things that happen to us or the messes we get into, and how, or if, we get out of them. But some of the stories also reference contemporary issues, such as climate change, domestic abuse, and homelessness.

The stories aren’t linked but this does not mean that order is not important. With a collection like this – that is, one dealing with some of life’s toughest challenges – the order in which the stories are presented, and which one is chosen for the end, can be significant. In this collection, Matta has followed the sad, bitter penultimate story with a story about homelessness in which the destitute but proud Merle slowly comes to trust the warm, generous 23-year-old Ethan. Surely this is intended to leave us with a sense that all is not lost, that there is hope if we ignore our differences and focus on our common humanities.

So, another engaging and stimulating collection of stories from Midnight Sun with – is it too shallow to end on this? – another beautiful cover.

Challenge logo

Marian Matta
Life, bound
Adelaide: MidnightSun, 2020
223pp.
ISBN: 9781925227710

(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2021 08:50

    ” Titles in short stories are, I think, particularly important”.
    Imnsho, titles are as important as content, whether of books, stories or movies. Not enough attention is paid to titles !

    • May 6, 2021 09:03

      they are, I agree , M-R. I remember your talking about yours!

      But I do think in short stories you should expect them to be important whereas in a book you have to expect marketing to be at play too. I love talking about titles with authors.

      • May 6, 2021 16:14

        I am so glad to hear that conversations like that are happening, ST. 🙂

        • May 6, 2021 18:37

          They are M-R. Perhaps particularly at writers festivals and in Q&As with authors.

    • May 7, 2021 16:28

      It’s good to know it’s not just me who has a fascination with titles. Choosing the perfect title for a story is an entertainment in itself. I love it when a title falls into place. It guides a reader and more often than not it helps shape a story. I’ve frequently edited a story down to the bare essentials once I’ve worked out its title.

      • May 8, 2021 12:58

        Oh GOODONYOU, Marian !! You restore my faith in .. in something. 😀

      • May 8, 2021 15:59

        Thanks so much Marian for commenting, and particularly for addressing this question. So many authors feel they can’t comment on their reviews on blog posts, but I don’t think there’s any reason why not.

        I’m sorry I’ve taken a while to reply. I have been away on a road trip for a few days (and scheduled my review to post while I was away). I got back last night.

        Anyhow, your answer accords with what I rather expected – at least from your stories, and from those of some other short story writers. I like your point that it can help shape the story. I love reading a story and looking again at the title and thinking about it. I just loved “He turned up” and the multiple meanings and emotions behind it, for example.

  2. May 7, 2021 16:34

    Sue, it’s not shallow at all to mention the cover. Kim Locke did a wonderful job with both Life, Bound’s cover and Rural Dreams’ cover.
    And thank you again for a wonderful review. I feel like I’m sending my children out into the world when a story is published or entered into a competition, and I’m happy when those story children get a gentle pat on the head.

    • May 8, 2021 13:00

      This pertickler reviewer is known for her amazingly readable reviews – reviews that in some cases brought an author, smiling, back from the brink ..

    • May 8, 2021 16:01

      Thanks Marian … those two covers are lovely so I’m glad you like yours. I’m glad you like the review. Am very sorry I’ve taken so long, but your collection was worth waiting for. (I loved the opening of Roadkill … it immediately reminded me of the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a death foretold, until I realised it wasn’t that at all!)

  3. May 9, 2021 11:35

    Sue, I don’t think that appreciating a beautiful book cover is at all shallow. The cover sets the tone for the whole book.
    Your review has inspired me to order a copy for myself.

    • May 9, 2021 15:08

      Thanks Rose. I’m glad so many agree. That’s fantastic that you’ve ordered a copy. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

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  1. Life, Bound by Marian Matta | Rose Reads Novels

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