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Michael Wilding & David Myers, eds., Best Stories Under the Sun, (Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 2004, AUD$25.95, 186 pages, ISBN 1-876780-58-4)—Susan Ballyn, Universitat de Barcelona


The last review I wrote was on Friendly Street: New Poets Ten and the work of three new poets. Now I find myself pleasurably engaged in reviewing Best Stories Under the Sun edited by Michael Wilding and David Myers. Although published in December 2004, this collection of short stories has received practically no critical attention. A further volume came out quite recently and again has received little attention, as far as I can tell. I wonder why and can find no reason other than collections of short stories very often get overlooked in the general glut of novels, biographies, autobiographies, academic writing and other genres. Like poetry, anthologies of short stories do not sell well, apart from single collections by well-known authors. Yet I find the lack of attention paid to this particular collection intriguing and also disturbing. Here is an anthology with work by some of the finest short story writers and novelists in Australia, alongside that of lesser-known names and debutants in the field. I find the publisher’s blurb on the back cover quite disquieting and misplaced: “Perfect reading for the beach, the bedside, the airport and the Christmas Stocking.” Not, I would suggest, the best way in which to publicise one’s publications. It smacks of the light, the frivolous, the “read it and put it away” sort of book. This is most certainly not the case with this collection. There are stories here by well-known writers such as Inez Baranay, Carmel Bird, David Brooks, Laurie Clancy, Marion Halligan, Nigel Krauth, and the list goes on. Many of the authors in this collection have won prestigious awards such as the Miles Franklin, Christina Stead, Steele Rudd, Australian-Vogel, and Age Book of the Year. As if chaperoned, but not overshadowed, by such notable names, the reader also finds a fine collection of lesser-known writers, a generation coming up to take their place in the great tradition of the Australian short story. Among them; Vivienne Wynter, Ros Love, Sally Breen, JMA Stenning, Neelam Maharaj, and again the list is long. The collection is made all the more interesting by the testing of quality, inevitable in a collection of this kind, of the old experienced hands at short story writing and those arriving on the scene. The result is more than encouraging. Here are voices which are strong, individual, perceptive, skilled and attractive. A very strong point of this collection is that while the stories deal with a huge range of subject matter and human experience, there is a nexus of thematic union underlying the whole: the state of the world in which we exist and how and why we exist in it. It is impossible to give a comprehensive analysis of each story in the collection and those I have chosen to look at in some detail by no means suggest that the others are of lesser quality. Indeed, the striking factor of this collection is the evenness in the standard of the writing in the volume.


Inez Baranay uses her Hungarian heritage to replay the vampire figure in the visit by Cousin Vlad to the Gold Coast in “My Transylvanian Cousin” [113-126]. Here the bright lights and garish touristy atmosphere of the Gold Coast are intertwined with the myths and ancientness of old Europe. If the vampire requires his consumption of fresh blood to survive, Baranay hints, by analogue, at the voraciousness of twenty-first century materialism devoid of sustaining myths that consolidate a clearly defined identity. It is the people of the twenty-first century, at play on the Gold Coast, who are seen as being far more at risk from moral and spiritual demise than Vlad on his necessary dose of blood. The true vampire emerges as western consumerism devouring everything in its path leaving no room for mythmaking, or spiritual growth. As Sally Breen observes in “Ante Up” [83-90], “The Gold Coast does not disguise the game of living. Existence is not luck. Existence is strategy” [86].


A classic Jack London story, “A Piece of Steak” [53-66], reveals how life is neither luck nor strategy. This story comes from the time London spent in Australia during 1908 – 1909. Tom King, an ageing, if not beyond it, boxer from lower-class Sydney prepares for what will turn out to be his last fight—but how do you train and keep in form when you cannot afford to put meat on the table for your family. In that typically spare yet subtly descriptive London style, the main part of the story revolves around Tom King’s fight against Sandel, not for glory, but for the thirty pounds his family so badly needs. The story reads like a classic black and white film as the reader gets an almost blow by blow account of the eleven rounds, until Tom is finally beaten to his knees. If Baranay explores the materialism and consumerism of society, London explores the inexorable defeat of the “older,” not necessarily the old, by the young coming up behind. With the same kind of voraciousness that we see in Baranay’s story, here we witness a world that idolises the young, the strong, the winner, and discards those who no longer serve a purpose nor stand to be admired.


If the voraciousness and consumerism of our world has been one of the key motifs in the stories examined so far, in “A Curious Story” [171-175] Marion Halligan focuses on a different mouth-watering voraciousness: the world of delicious cakes in Vienna, “the city of cakes, of coffee houses baroquely gothic and gothickly baroque, as lavish with gilding as they are with cream” [172]. A chance meeting with pretty Francesca on the Ringstrasse tram leads to the discovery of “Alexandres au sirop. Long cylindrical cakes, or rolls, oozing with juice. Tasting of oranges and almonds” [173]. Oranges recalls a recipe for Passover Cake sent to her by Carmel Bird to which she has added some of her own ingredients. No recipe, warns Halligan, is unique but has always derived from somewhere and somebody else and in so doing changes slightly just as language shifts over time; “a napron is now “an apron.” “While children still ask if they can have a norange” [175]. Marion Halligan’s work has ranged widely over the years but this story is typical of her abiding interest in food, its history and social role, as well as with the cause and effect of change, here in a recipe, elsewhere in ways of life and emotional responses. Halligan’s piece is part of a book she was in the process of writing and which was released almost simultaneously at the end of 2004 as The Taste of Memory, published by Allen and Unwin and, like all of Halligan’s work, well worth reading.


The reference to Carmel Bird’s recipe for Passover Cake, turns the reader to Bird’s own contribution to this volume. In 1990, Carmel Bird edited a most interesting collection of short stories under the title Australian Short Stories [Houghton Mifflin] aimed specifically at the American market. The collection was admirable in its range and an excellent introduction to the Australian short story scene. Bird has long had a name as an innovative writer and her work ranges across fiction, critical essays and short stories. Bird’s “What World is This? As revealed in Jane’s journal and Margaret’s thoughts” [143-148] revolves around two contrasting figures: that of Jane Wordsworth, daughter of “Lady Charlotte Wordsworth of Carrickvale Convenor of the London Chapter Ladies’ Committee for the Promotion of the Emigration of Single Women to Van Diemens’ Land 1832” [143], and of Margaret Coffey, a workhouse girl chosen to emigrate to Van Diemens’ Land. Their two worlds could not be more different. Lady Jane’s journal entry is written in a perfect imitation of the prose of the mid nineteenth century and reeks of the young lady’s certain frivolity and the social class in which she moves. However, her tone sobers somewhat as she recounts having attended an interview session with female inmates of a work house willing to emigrate to the antipodes. She writes in a detached form as if witnessing but not really having engaged with the situation or the women up for interview until she sees young Margaret Coffey. Nonetheless, romantic superficiality from books read takes over as she analyses Margaret’s future in the antipodes. “I had a vision of a tiny stone church in the avenue of apple trees, and Margaret was the blushing bride in delicate lace and satin ribbons with a posy of bright flowers picked from the lanes on her way to church. Her husband was a soldier in scarlet coat and feathered cap” [146]. Margaret’s experience is couched in her own simple but dramatically eloquent language. She is raped by the surgeon then handed to the seamen during the voyage only to arrive in Van Diemens’ Land to have the Ladies Committee turn her out onto the streets “to beg and whore your way and find your way and may God have mercy upon your soul and we are most disappointed in this cargo of lewd and lopsided women with the limping legs and the sloping backs and the broken wings of crumpled crazy crack-pot moth-faced butterfly wishbone sluts.” This recreation of the emerging colony and the cynicism, lack of understanding or comprehension of what actually happened during voyages of emigration to women from English poorhouses is skilfully crafted by Bird to leave the reader wondering, “well, what sort of world was it” in both hemispheres that could lead to such a lack of understanding of the underprivileged Other.


Finally, I want to look at some of the lesser-known writers in this volume. Vivienne Wynter's “I Want Candy” [1-6] opens the collection. Her biographical details reveal that she is a journalist, and it is precisely the journalistic, down-to-earth style which permeates her moving story about the absence of loving parents in the life of the protagonist and the devastating effects that this has on the individual. The journalistic style comes through beautifully as the protagonist and her sister fly to meet their mother:


It was night when my sister and I flew into Brisbane to visit our mother. We came from New Zealand where we lived with our father.
Our father attended Duntroon Military College. He was not a demonstrative man. [2]


How much more can be read between these spare lines!


Tina Landeros's “I Recognised You” [180-183] is couched in the second-person voice which makes the story very intense, suffocating and deeply disturbing. The protagonist, an alcoholic, moves through the pages of this very short story in a haze of hate and self-destruction, to a possible final recognition that she is what she is: an alcoholic. To have written the story in such a compressed manner, three pages, with the constant focusing “you,” immerses the reader in a claustrophobic world of fear. The story ends ambivalently, leaving the reader to wonder if the protagonist has perhaps recognised her state or is merely going to continue cycling into alcohol binges:


You went home and watched television and drank sweet cooking sherry until you fell asleep in your chair. When you woke it was dawn. You sat stiffly in the grey light and thought about all the boys who had hankered after you and how you never heard from anyone anymore. You smoked a cigarette. You noticed some dark yellow bruises on your wrists and tried to remember how you had got them. You were filled with dread. [183]


Finally to the moving story by Neelam Maharaj, “Festivals” [127-132], set in India. This is Maharaj’s first piece to appear in print and is written in beautifully balanced, poetic yet tightly controlled prose conjuring up the colours, smells, sounds and light of India, a background which works in startling contrast to the plight of her protagonist Kamla watering her marigolds as if to bring some  colour into her own life. Kamla is trapped in the daily routine of work, cooking, cleaning, and financially sustaining the family since “Ram, her husband, claimed he was too sick to help, since his bout of tuberculosis a few years ago” [128]. However, Kamla is further enmeshed by the ancestral traditions of her people which make her daughter the butt of her husbands family’s snide comments about her mother’s poverty. As the festival of Diwali approaches, Kamla knows she will somehow have to provide all the trappings and sweetmeats to meet her in-law’s expectations and prevent her daughter from further humiliation, thereby increasing her own debts. Maharaj ends the story with a dour criticism of ancestral traditions in which individuals find themselves inexorably trapped. Kamla muses:


Oh, she sighed, the joy of festivals. Indeed we must preserve our traditions that have been handed down for generations to be handed down for generations to come, going on and on, keeping us chained forever, to this cycle, forever and forever, she thought, thinking into a sea of bitterness. [131]


Any reader keen on acquiring a wide-ranging taste of the state of the art of Australian short story writing should read this collection.

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