A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop

A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop is a quiet, contemplative collection of stories about a brutal topic – the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires. 

You remember mostly, three a.m.: they found our neighbours in clusters, mostly in amalgam fillings and tyre rims trickled into what looked like snowy earth – silvers, gunmetal greys and blacks so petrol-shiny you’d think of a currawong’s wing… We were comforted, afterwards, that things ended for them together, holding each other under betadine-and-copper-coloured smoke. Under a sky that’d once promised kinder things: maybe Vegemite toast on Sunday morning, maybe a weeknight, after-work kiss.

There are dozens of stories in this collection, some just a sentence or paragraph long. The stories focus on the aftermath of the fires, and are told from various perspectives – those who lost family and homes; a nurse working in a burns unit; kids resettling in city schools while houses are rebuilt; someone thinking about the Google Earth satellite and lag before new pictures of blackened earth will replace those of her house, standing as it once was.

A handful of stories shone. In Soft News, a class is asked to imagine what they would save from a burning house. While the girls list their adidas leggings, Maybelline lipsticks and phones, the narrator names just two things – her mother and her aunt. In Just a Spark, a woman sits through the trial of the man who started the fatal blaze that took the lives of her daughter, grandson and son-in-law. At the end of each day, she parks her car at McDonald’s, where she ‘…imagines what it’d be like to feel normal again, just for a moment.’

The stand-out, Clearing, described a couple’s return to their devastated community, only to find that others are not coming back. The descriptions of their attempts to ‘get back to normal’ after such tragedy were a blend of sadness, fortitude and despair, with Theo asking, “‘How can I stop remembering the little things…?”

…she knew it was Theo’s way of dealing with the accumulating unrest – which hit him hardest in the hours just before dawn. Peanut-butter toast and black tea fixed it for a while, the late-night snack occupying time, making him forget, for a few moments, the longing for their cupboards of photos, his inherited leather motorbike jacket – once worn by his father in all kinds of weather – and the knotted-pine doors.

There’s a delicacy to Bishop’s writing – it would have been easy to focus on the horrific details of the fires and their catastrophic physical damage, but instead she writes about the social and emotional aftermath – it too is shocking, but in a quieter, cumulative way. Notably, she captures the particular struggle of many who have experienced a trauma – while they don’t want to think about it all of the time, they do think about it all of the time. But of course, trauma is a complex beast, with ‘survivor guilt’, grief, and the ways people cope giving it muscle and longevity. By exploring all of these elements through many characters, Bishop has created a rich and cohesive collection.

It’s been years, now, but Kay’s chest still whirrs along to some white-noise hum since she watched the wool-furred dog curl up from smoke inhalation – her own breath quickening as the walls lit up around her: scrambling for the car keys in the sudden, umber-edged dark.

3.5/5 Finely written.

Sometimes Small Gran’s clothes were all powdery with flour. She made us all kind of special desserts when we went to stay: lamingtons, Cadbury brownies and even the kind of cake that was in the shape of a swimming pool. Gran used blue jelly for the water.

3 responses

    • Don’t worry Bill but thank you for asking, I’m quite fine! It may seem like I’m obsessed with trauma stories but the rest of my life/ spare time is absolutely not focused on trauma (I don’t have time between swimming, listening to ABBA, watching trashy tv…). I guess I read a lot of books with grief and trauma as a theme because I find it very interesting (I do a lot of grief work in counselling and it turns out that I’m okay sitting with grief, and not all counsellors are). But also, because of my interest, I zero in on those themes, even if only hinted at, and that’s what I note in my reviews. I occasionally direct counselling clients to certain books (bibliotherapy), and my reviews are studded with references that are meaningful to me in that regard.

      You’ll be pleased to know that my next few reviews are about books that have no grief or trauma theme!

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