If previous longlists are anything to go by, you’d have to say that short story collections get a fair crack at the Stella Prize. And because I’m going to have a go at predicting the Stella longlist this year, I figured I should read as many eligible books as I can before making a call –
Pulse Points by Jennifer Down
I was initially wooed by the sumptuous cover on Pulse Points (it reminds me of something I might find on a dress at Gorman), and the fact that Down’s novel, Our Magic Hour, was a 2017 favourite of mine. And while I enjoyed the titular story, it was the second story, Aokigahara, that reminded me that the term ‘velvet hammer’ should be applied to Down’s writing. Aokigahara tells of a young woman’s journey to the ‘suicide forest’ in Japan – all of the unsettling emotion, honesty and glorious sentences that distinguished Our Magic Hour are evident in 15-odd pages –
I phoned my father when I arrived. He said, You mum’s just around at Aunty El’s, in such a way that I knew she wasn’t: that she’d left the room with her hand to her mouth when he’d first said, Hullo, love, and I felt so sorry for us all.
Other stories were equally as good. The tenderness in We Got Used to Here Fast, a story about kids temporarily living with their grandparents, was notable, as it was in the story of two adult sisters, Peaks. Down creates a wonderful sense of place in each story and I got completely (happily) side-tracked by small, exquisite turns of phrase that were also hugely expressive –
Power-pedalling up the big hill at night, foreheads spangled with sweat. (Aokigahara)
I groped through my bag, whose contents shifted and slid over one another like things lost on the ocean floor. (Convalescence)
When she left the sky was paper-coloured. All the cows had started their journey home, their tender ears flattened. (Alpine Road)
4/5 Lots to love.
I received my copy of Pulse Points from the publisher, Text Publishing, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Australia Day by Melanie Cheng
Focusing strongly on themes of identity, power balance and what it means to ‘belong’, Melanie Cheng’s collection, Australia Day, provides snapshots of Australian suburban life from a variety of perspectives.
Cheng manages to deliver some powerful blows that caught me unaware. I stress the ‘caught unaware’ bit because that’s what happens with casual racism, isn’t it? You’re having a perfectly ordinary conversation with someone and they slip in something that is absolutely not right, and it catches you unaware. You’re thinking ‘Hang on…’, and you turn the comment over and over in your mind, ‘to be sure’, but from every angle it’s racist. And the conversation has moved on but you’re left with a bad taste and you wish you’d said something in the moment. And that’s how casual racism stays alive. And grows. And Cheng gently reminds us of that in her stories that examine life from the perspective of various cultural backgrounds –
She shows them how to operate the air conditioning before shuffling backwards to the door. Somehow, during this brief deferential dance, Raf slips Sukhon a tip. Kat is both impressed and a little revolted. (Clear Blue Skies)
But as she described her despair , Melissa heard something disturbing in her own voice – a childlike fascination or delight that came dangerously close to excitement. As if she were practising the tales she would tell her friends at the pub once she got back home to Australia. (Hotel Cambodia)
I loved the references to Melbourne, and Cheng’s attention to detail, which firmly embedded her stories in suburbia –
Barry heated up a Lite n’Easy meal in the microwave and turned on the television. He watched MasterChef, which only made his food even less appetising than it already was. (Doughnuts)
3/5 A cohesive and thoughtful collection.