Amanda O’Callaghan, This taste for silence (#BookReview)

Book coverShort story collections are rarely recognised in literary fiction awards, but Amanda O’Callaghan’s debut collection, This taste for silence, was shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. The judges described it as “inventive in its themes and by an author unafraid to enfold her readers into unsettling reading experiences”. I would agree. This taste for silence is full of unusual turns that force us to see an issue or event from a different – and often unsettling – angle.

In an interview conducted by Readings, O’Callaghan says:

I certainly did not write these stories with any theme in mind, although once I saw the whole manuscript it was clear that themes were emerging all on their own. It soon became apparent that I liked writing about people with secrets. Your description of “unspoken histories” is perhaps closer to the mark; I do like thinking and writing about characters who, for a variety of reasons, cannot articulate how they feel, or what’s happened to them. Or what they’ve done.

As a result, this collection has been given an over-riding title – which I rather like – rather than being  titled for one of the stories contained within. Like O’Callaghan’s interviewer above, I too would have said that the book is more about unsaid things than about secrets, though of course, the former often implies or results in the latter. Some of these unsaid things may be deliberately so – or deliberately withheld for a time – while others are things, as O’Callaghan says above, that people can’t easily articulate.

So, to describe the book. It contains twenty-one stories, ranging  from flash or micro fiction pieces to the last and longest story, “The painting”, which runs for 40 pages. Fifteen of the stories have been published before, many through flash fiction competitions. Two of the longer stories were published in the (sadly) now-defunct Review of Australian Fiction. One of these is the opening story, “A widow’s snow”. It provides a perfect introduction to the collection because not only does it introduce the reader to the main ideas O’Callaghan explores in the collection, but it also exemplifies her skilled command over narrative. By this I mean the way she can string the reader along with little hints about what is really happening without ever letting our focus drift away from character to plot. Plot is not the important thing for O’Callaghan. Rather, it’s how, as Eddie ponders in “The painting”, characters cope with the “endings of things”.

Endings, then, are a thread in this collection, and, let’s not be coy about it, by “endings” I mean death, because most of the stories deal with death in some way. Murder, suicide, euthanasia, drowning, miscarriage, war deaths – along with the more usual deaths from illness – occur. Most of these deaths, though, don’t occur in the actual story. Two deaths, for example, are referred to in “A widow’s snow”, but both have happened before the story commences. The story starts lightly enough:

Roger, Maureen decided, is the kind of man who would appreciate an old-fashioned pudding. She flicked through the best of her recipe books, toyed with ideas like apple tart with a rich pastry crust – Gerald’s favourite, so not really an option – and all manner of sponges, even soufflés. She braved the mole-eyed newsagent (twice divorced, blinking at the door for a new, early-rising wife) and bought a couple of cookery magazines.

What an assured start to a story – and to a collection. There’s the humour, the hints about Roger’s character and Maureen’s hopes, and the straight but evocative language. The domestic details in the unfolding of this surprisingly shocking story are on point, skewering character and nailing the tone perfectly. In this story, it’s Roger who has the secret and Maureen who must decide how she’s going to cope with it. After this story, we know to be prepared for anything, and yet, I was still surprised, more than once, as I read on.

“A widow’s story”, told third person, is one of the longer pieces. It’s followed by a flash fiction piece, “Un uncommon occurrence”, which won the Allingham Flash Fiction Competition in 2015. (You can read it on their site.) This story is told second person and is, ironically, about what women are so often told is a “common” happening. You can probably guess what this is. The third story, “The turn”, is also told second person. It won the Carmel Bird Award for New Crime Writing, also in 2015. This is quite a macabre story, one that unsettles the reader by encouraging us to engage with the narrator until we get to the point where have to accept that we’ve been taken in … and yet, even then, we are forced to think around all the corners.

And so the stories continue, introducing us to a wide cast of people, young and old, male and female, some of them confronted with the ordinary, and others with the extraordinary. One of the impressive things about this collection, in fact, is the variety of characters and situations O’Callaghan presents to explore these gaps and silences. One of the stories I loved – which I won’t name so it won’t be spoiled if you read it – is told in the voice of a hoarder. As in most of the stories, its narrator’s true situation is only slowly revealed, in this case because she knows her behaviour is not socially acceptable. Once again, we are encouraged to see her from multiple angles rather than from the more usual, and simplistic, judgemental one.

The interesting question hanging over most of the collection’s characters is when or whether to speak the unspoken. Roger, in the first story, seems to decide that if there’s going to be a future in his burgeoning relationship with the titular widow, he needs to come clean. Other narrators, most of them first person, can’t help but let their story out, sometimes in a confessional tone, sometimes to relieve or share their pain. The practical, can-do Justin in “Legacy”, for example, is permanently scarred by his good deed, pondering “who would have thought practicality could be such a deadly characteristic?” The underlying point to the collection, then, is that unsaid things are tricky – left unsaid they can burn you up or lock you out from others, but, sometimes, saying them can have the same result.

So This taste for silence is a compelling but provocative book that forces us to confront the silences in our lives, to consider them from multiple perspectives and ask whether they work for ill or good. Our hoarder, for example, thinks the latter. Her story ends with her returning to her silent ways: “The house feels glad again, released. It hums with the joy of things ending”. Is it reasonable for us to disagree, much as we might like to? I suggest you read the book to see what you think.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAmanda O’Callaghan
This taste for silence
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702260377

(Review copy courtesy UQP)