Lynette Washington, Plane Tree Drive (#BookReview)

Lynette Washington, Plane Tree DriveLynette Washington’s debut collection of short stories, Plane Tree Drive, reminded me a little of Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking dogs (my review). Both are collections of stories revolving around a location, and in both the location is in the Adelaide region. There are differences though. Clarkson’s book is a little grittier with an overall theme of community undergoing social change, while Washington’s book is the portrait of a suburban street. There is change, of course, but the change is more broadly human – breakups, ageing and retirement, generation gaps, friendship and dementia, illness and death – although contemporary issues are also touched on.

Like Clarkson’s book too, Washington’s has some continuing storylines – such as Jennifer who is unhappily married to Dan while pining for her first love, Alexander – that are interspersed with the stories of other people. I liked this. Not only do these ongoing storylines provide a lovely sense of cohesion for the whole, but they also reflect a typical neighbourhood street. By this I mean that in any of our neighbourhoods there are people we know well, those we know a little, and others whom we only know passingly. And so, in Plane Tree Drive, there’s Jennifer who appears regularly; there are others like Maurice, Alice, Amily and Faraj who appear more than once, sometimes as a reference in another person’s story; and there are those who only appear in their own story.

To make all this work, Washington pays careful attention to structure. The overall order is chronological, driven primarily by Jennifer’s story, but the collection starts and ends with the other main continuing story, that of musician Maurice. His final section cleverly but light-handedly brings several of the characters together, but I won’t tell you how! The book is divided into sections – I think that’s the best way to describe it – which are named for the characters they cover, but some sections comprise small chapters. For example, a section titled Faraj, Coralie and Ruby, which focuses on Afghani asylum-seeker Faraj, has two short chapters, “Housing Needs Assessment” and “The Bay”. And this brings me to form …

Many of the stories are short, in fact very short, and most are told first person, but there’s some interesting variety, some experimenting with form, too. There’s a dialogue between Maurice and his wife Jacqui (“He said/She said”), some diary entries by the teenaged Poppy (“Dear diary”), several government employee reports on Faraj’s application for housing (“Housing Needs Assessment”), some social media commentary (in the cheeky “Scarlett’s shed”), and even a flow-chart from IT expert Sarah (“Oma’s fruit cake”). This playing with form – which brings with it changes in tone – break up what could, in other hands, become a tedious and melancholic parade of first person voices.

Oh dear, I’ve spent a lot of time describing the book and how it works but not much on whether I enjoyed it – so I’ll do that now. Of course I enjoyed it! How could any reader who is interested in the lives of people not enjoy a book which pokes into the nooks and crannies of all our lives? There are stories with a political bent, albeit told from personal not political perspectives. These include the aforementioned Faraj and his search for a home, a couple (Stella and Graham) who travel overseas to access euthanasia legally, and a woman (Coralie) watching the demolition of a loved theatre. I like that Washington doesn’t proselytise, but simply shows how people are affected by and react to these situations. There are lighter stories, such as Marg who talks to animals, particularly her neighbour’s badly behaved cat (“That cat”).

And there are, dare I use that cliché, “poignant” stories, such as, to give an example, Martha and Charles (“Gaps between boxes” and “So much sand and so much water”). They are a retired couple who have been together since childhood but who, at this point in their lives, suddenly find themselves at odds. She wants to adventure – to “seek out the gaps between the boxes” they’ve been ticking all their lives – but he just wants peace. He thinks “the boxes made a darn good life”. This story is gently and warmly told. No fireworks, just hope and acceptance on both sides.

There’s exploration in the writing – in form in particular – as I’ve already said, but the stories are accessible. This is the sort of short story collection that should have wide appeal. The use of recurring characters makes it appealing to those who prefer novels, while the playing with the short story form and structure provides interest for the short story lover.

Washington, who has appeared here before as editor of Breaking beauty (my review), precedes her book with an epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The great Gatsby. The quote concludes with “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I wouldn’t say I was repelled, albeit some characters are more appealing than others, but Plane Tree Drive does contain a wide variety of life which makes it an engaging and yes, enchanting even, read. Like many books from smaller publishers, it deserves a wider audience than it will probably get.

AWW Badge 2018Lynette Washington
Plane Tree Drive
Rundle Mall, MidnightSun Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925227345

(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun Publishing)

Lynette Washington (ed), Breaking beauty (Review)

Lynette Washington, Breaking Beauty

Courtesy: MidnightSun

As I’ve said before, I usually don’t read book introductions until the end. In the case of Breaking beauty, an anthology of short stories edited by Lynette Washington, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had read it first because Brian Castro’s intro gave nothing away while at the same time saying a lot. He starts by noting that the short story is making a come-back, “and wondering why it ever went away, perhaps because we were too imbued with the great whatever novel in the Borealis of canons or by the glossy fits of fashionable shades of grey”. Love the bite in that!

It’s a great introduction. It’s erudite, pithy, and often tongue-in-cheek. Castro says, reading my mind, “what good is an intro-duction if you haven’t been in-ducted, or even read the stories”. What indeed? And yet, his “intro-duction” manages to craftily incorporate the stories and their contexts, the ideas that drive them, without over-explaining or giving anything away. It is one of the most delicious introductions I’ve read in a very long time – unlike my introduction, so let’s move on!

Breaking beauty is a collection of stories by graduates of the University of Adelaide’s Creative Writing course. As Castro hints through a reference to Rousseau and as Washington states more directly, the stories explore the “complementary forces” and “dualities” encompassed by the idea of beauty, the notion that “there is no beauty without ugliness”. There are 28 stories, of which 22 are by women. They range in length from three or four pages to ten or so. Five of the stories have been published elsewhere, including Melanie Kinsman’s heart-rending “A paper woman” which was published in the Margaret River Press’s The trouble with flying (my review).

As you would expect, the stories look at beauty from all sorts of angles, physical, emotional, spiritual, even intellectual, but they rarely tell it straight. In Matthew Gabriel’s “To my son”, for example, an ugly father presents, to his apparently similarly ugly son, his solution for “neutralising physical appearance” which, he believes, will “not only rid the world of ugly’s plague but also its inextricable and toxic inverse”. Jo Lennan’s “A real looker” explores an extra-marital passion that resulted in a daughter who struggles to understand the adult world of passion, and a father transfers this passion to a boat called Marilyn. Sean Williams’ “The beholders” is a speculative fiction piece which cleverly twists the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In other stories, beauty is more abstract . The second story, Corrie Hosking’s “A well strained fence”, is told first person by a young man for whom beauty is neatness and order. It’s a nicely sustained story that epitomises what a complicated notion or concept beauty is. It also neatly provides me with an opportunity to talk about voice. Just over half the stories are told first person, and two are told second person. One of these, Mary Lynn Mather’s mother-and-child story, “Whatever happened to the fairy-tale ending”, uses second person effectively to convey an emotion that is almost beyond bearing.

But of course voice is about more than which “person” is used; it’s about the persona used to tell the story, that is, about how the narrator of that story sounds to us. In short story collections – particularly anthologies – we usually find a great variety in voice (and, related to this, tone). Lynette Washington, in “Lia and Amos”, uses a matter-of-fact, reporter-like third person voice to tell a story with an unusual twist. The voice keeps us on our toes, divulging only what is going on in the moment, with no backstory or additional information, so that the end, when it comes, surprises and yet seems natural at the same time, because nothing has been sensationalised. By contrast, Rosemary Jackson’s narrator, Athina in “Athina and the sixty-nine calorie burn”, exudes the distressing (in this case), naive confidence of the young while the reader knows exactly what’s going on.

Several stories, including some already mentioned, tackle contemporary society’s (over-)emphasis on beauty. Others look at a broader notion of aesthetics from some interesting angles. Rebekah Clarkson uses an argument about aesthetics – a finial, in fact – in “A simple matter of aesthetics” to expose male arrogance, while in Katherine Arguile’s “Wabi-Sabi” a man’s commitment to aesthetics puts his family’s health, indeed survival, at risk. Meanwhile, Stefan Laszczuk’s narrator in “The window winder” finds beauty in a very gruesome place.

There’s no way, of course, that I can mention all twenty-eight stories. The ones I’ve mentioned here aren’t the only ones I enjoyed. There are moving – and often painful – stories about love, about sons and mothers, nieces and aunts, husbands and wives, mothers and children. There are stories about ageing, and the losses that usually attend, in one form or another. And there’s Lilian Rose’s cheeky story about a very unusual “Ladies Tea Party”.

Castro writes in his introduction of “the fleeting and the fleeing before one’s eyes, as a good short story is wont to do, not allowing its meaning to fully emerge because that would kill it, but letting it flit mothlike into memory”. This definition of good short stories could also define “true” beauty – as I’m sure the writers in this diverse and enjoyable collection would agree.

awwchallenge2015Lynette Washington (ed)
Breaking Beauty
Rundle Mall: MidnightSun Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 978192522700

(Review copy supplied by Midnight Sun)