Emma Ashmere’s short story collection, Dreams they forgot, is different again from recent short story collections I’ve read. Certainly very different from the most recent, Adam Thompson’s Born into this (my review). One of the things that makes it different is its breadth in terms of time and place. Thompson’s collection, for example, is mostly contemporary, with occasional forays into the past and a little jump into the future. It is also very definitely centred in Tasmania. Ashmere’s collection on the other hand, while having some grounding in South Australia, has stories set elsewhere in Australia as well as overseas, including London, France, Bali and even Borneo. Furthermore, a significant number of the stories are historical fiction, with some set in colonial Australia, or during the Depression, for example, or post war, or in the 1970s. This is quite unusual in my experience of short story collections.
Unusual I say, but not surprising, because Emma Ashmere’s debut book is an historical fiction novel, The floating garden (my review). It is one of those books that has stuck with me because it tells such a strong story of social injustices that occurred during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
I could, then, start my discussion with the story in this collection which concerns the Bridge during its construction (“The sketchers”), but instead I’m going to the final story, because it gave me a laugh. This story, “Fallout”, concerns the (not funny) nuclear testing at Maralinga and concludes with the narrator taking her mother to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra to show her some relevant treasures. What a great little promo for the importance of collecting institutions like the NFSA. But, that’s not what made me laugh. As some of you know, I spent most of my career at the NFSA, and this is how our narrator introduces it:
I tell her I live with my girlfriend in Canberra and work at the Film and Sound Archive with a bunch of other failed actors, part-time poets and overlooked opera singers.
I wish I could count myself as one of those, but I’m far too prosaic. However, there is probably an element of truth in what she writes. All I can say is that at least the NFSA offers gainful, and valuable, employment! This story, dealing as it does with the “fallout” from nuclear testing – great wordplay here – makes a fitting and strong end to Ashmere’s collection, which deals with all sorts of fallouts in people’s lives.
Take the first story, for example. Titled “The winter months”, it concerns a young woman who, like many young people, is uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, much to her mother’s frustration. She’s in England, and is doing a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which, she believes, “is going to change everything. It will give me purpose. A goal. A life”. She meets and is attracted to a mysterious and seemingly confident young woman, Aveline, but, unbeknownst to our narrator, Aveline has her own challenges, and suddenly disappears.
“The winter months”, however, is more complex than I’ve described here. It introduces us to several types of characters and relationships which thread through the collection – uncertain young women, lepidopterists (would you believe), mothers-and-daughters, neglected wives, fledgling same-sex attractions, to name a few. The result is that, as the book progresses, some stories start to feel linked, even though in most cases the link isn’t actual. The effect though is to ground the collection because this feeling is supported by recurring concerns.
One of these is Ashmere’s concern for social justice, for overlooked people, for women in particular. “Nightfall” tells the story of a young Irishwoman who arrives in Adelaide during goldfields days:
Most of us here Behind the Wall sailed across the sea with our Billies, Jemmies or Toms. No sooner did they set their boots in the dust, they streaked off like a dog chasing a rabbit across a field, all glint and muscle and hunger and bragging about what they will become. I waited for my Billy to bring back rabbits and gold, but he didn’t come.
And so, girls like her were left behind:
It’s the same in every port for girls like us. You stand with the bones of your back pressed against the wall as sailors rope up their harpoons and aim them at your lower parts, or you go into a tavern for a drink.
She ends up working for an abortionist who is, of course, more concerned about not being caught than her health and safety … This story was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Other stories explore the impact on relationships of PTSD in times when there was no support or recognition (“Warhead” and “Seaworthiness”), and another, as already mentioned, looks at the aftermath of nuclear testing at Maralinga. Many of the more contemporary stories feature children and young adults who find themselves caught in worlds they don’t fully understand or don’t yet know how to handle. “The violin” is a carefully told story about a controlling young man and his bride-to-be.
There is a melancholic or, at least resigned, tone to many of the stories, but most are not completely depressing. While happy endings might be rare, little wins or rebellions or, in some cases, lovely acts of grace lighten the endings. As with most collections, there are stories that didn’t quite work for me, but those that did more than made up for the rest. I particularly loved “Seaworthiness” and “The violin”, but most read well.
This brings me to the title, which is not one of the stories in the collection. What does it mean? It’s certainly true that many of the characters had dreams, and it’s also true that in most cases these dreams do not come to fruition. Did they forget them? Not always, but, for better or worse, other dreams – or, at least events – replace them.
If you’d like a taste of Ashmere’s writing, you can read one of the stories, “Standing up lying down”, online at Overland. I’ll finish with a quote from it:
Apparently she’d heard Laurie’s conference paper on the omissions and silences in Australian history, how particular stories are concreted over, while others are constructed and celebrated in their place.
In Dreams they forgot, Ashmere retrieves some of these concreted over stories – those she feels able to, anyhow – and gives them a darned good airing.
Dreams they forgot
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)