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.
Adelaide: MidnightSun, 2020
(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun)