Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Take a Breath & Hold It
By Michael de Valle
ISBN: 1 74027 299 4, 2005, 70pp, $18.50
Shortlisted, Arts Queensland Steele Rudd Australian Short Story Award 2006
Michael de Valle’s Take a Breath and Hold It is a painful read. Not because it’s overly dramatic or black. The stories are taut and almost sparse in their simplicity. But rather, because they have a ‘cut-to-the-bone’ honesty that gives them a verisimilitude so intense it hurts. The eight short stories which make up this collection take on the terrain of extraordinary moments that can and often do occur in any ordinary life. The subject matter will be instantly recognizable to any reader: the death of a father; the realization that a compensation claim won’t come through; the death of a marriage; an MRI scan to look for recurring Cancer; a father’s depression; a wife’s affair. The stories are full of betrayal, loneliness, fear, uncertainty, with disaster always just beyond the edges. For example, “Ice Cream” is the story of a man who, in the wake of a marriage breakdown, steals his children:
He thought about their mother and promises they’d made that now meant nothing. He hadn’t seen it coming. T here was no earth shattering incident. Things just moved slowly on until one day she left and the people they’d been were gone forever.
‘Daddy, I’m cold,’ the little girl said.
He got out of the car and opened the boot. The hose was sitting on top of the blankets. He picked it up in one hand and reached for the blankets with the other. (48)
The malice contained in that small hose reference, coupled with the warmth of an old friend offering an ice cream creates dramatic tension that is almost unbearable for the reader. The delicate, poetic coupling of the icy pain that would lead a father to kidnap his children and place a hose in his boot (an all too real scenario, judging from the news), mingling with the hope and innocence implied in the ice cream is very powerful. de Valle’s hand is very light, but his ability to meld sensual imagery and create maximum impact is excellent. The contrasts in this piece create the plot as we move between cold children and warm coffee/chocolate; contracted heart and the painful awakening brought on by an old friend. The cold of the ice cream and the warm sweetness that it implies. This subtle piece of work which rendered with skill.
Other stories are similarly powerful. The title story in the book, “Take a breath and hold it”, takes the reader along with the narrator through an MRI scan. The external action in the story is the motion of the narrator through the scanning machine, while the plot occurs in internal reflection. There is immediacy and subtlety in the way de Valle uses a poet’s sense of detail to bring the reader in. The reader shares the narrator’s claustrophobia as life becomes narrowed to the five senses, which are simultaneously tender and full of foreboding:
I feel the warmth of her fingers, then the cold of the alcohol swab. I look away and wait for the sting of the needle as it finds the vein. When I look back, she’s connecting the tubing and securing it with tape. I watch the solution curl its way along the intraveneous tube and into arm. It makes my arsehold feel hot. A familiar heat begins to spread uncomfortably through my body like a wave. (24)
As with almost all of the stories in this book, “Take a breath and hold it” is deeply sad. The narrator may be dying. There is irony in the word play: “remission”; “forgiveness”; the title and all it implies. But the sadness is lightened, punctuated with the narrator’s deep love for his wife, the serendipity of his son, whose innocent giggles, “fresh and alive”, are also part of the tone. This balance between life and death; joy and sorrow; pain, and a sense that pain passes and pleasure never disappears altogether, even in the most dire circumstance. The characters which punctuate these stories are ordinary and familiar, and their situations too are ones which the reader will have heard about if not experienced – they are the events which fill our news and horizons. But there is something transcendent which takes these sad stories beyond the immediate pain. Perhaps its just the beauty and deftness of the writing – the way in which change, even negative change, is explored in detail – everything noticed; every moment charged with a sense of past and future. These are unbeautiful moments made beautiful by the intensity of the gaze which de Valle turns on them. Even as the Cancer cells might be spreading, there is still the wife and son. Even if, after many years, a much loved wife is having an affair – there is still love. Even if dad is struggling with depression and insanity – he’s still there with his arm on your shoulders.
Take a Breath & Hold It is a book which doesn’t flinch from life’s blackest, most feared experiences. It faces them head-on, and there are no euphemisms. Death, insanity, jealousy and fear are ever present, in every story, as in every life, and they feel as bad as always. But along with all of that, and even at its lowest ebb, there is still beauty everywhere in this collection. These are exceptional stories, and de Valle’s writing is consistently fine, superbly tight, and intensely honest.