A review of The Best Australian Stories 2006

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Best Australian Stories 2006
Robert Drewe (ed)
Black Inc
ISBN 1863952705, RRP $au27.95, 380pp, Nov 2006

As an art form, the short story seems to be growing stronger. Writers still bemoan the difficulty in getting a short story collection published, but collections like Black Inc annual ‘best of’ series are a testament to the continuing demand for short fiction. The reasons why are obvious – a short story is fully contained, able to be read in a single sitting, and are often engaging, without needing the development time of a full scale novel. Part of the reason why the Black, Inc collections are so successful is the careful editorial input. This is the sixth year that this series has been in production, and the process for finding stories is a fascinating one, involving scouting through publications of respected literary mags, and, from this year on, accepting submissions from any writer so inclined. For writers, it’s a terrific opportunity to showcase work, get your name out, and pick up loyal readers. For readers, it’s a really nice way to expose yourself to a range of excellent stories, being entertained and stimulated by well known authors and also new names. Many authors whose names are well known to me now, were new when I first came across them years ago in collections in this series, for example, Jeanette Turner Hospital, Nicolas Shakepeare, Kate Grenville and Murray Bail. None of these names were known to me when I first came across them in one of these collections, years ago, but almost instantly thereafter started finding their work on bookshelves, in journals, and as novels (and all fulfilled the promise they showed with early short fiction).

There are plenty of well known names in the 2006 collection. Former editor Frank Moorhouse contributed a rather funny piece centred around a dinner conversation with a New York woman titled “I So Do Not Want To Be Having This Conversation.” As a former NYer, I enjoyed the joke, which had the woman speaking almost entirely in trendy vacuous platitudes – “I’d rather not go there…”, “Into the vault”. Other well known authors include Cate Kennedy, whose story “Cold Snap” is a beautiful and chilling first person piece that has a Faulkner feel to it:

The trees talk loud when it’s windy and soft when it’s quiet. I don’t know what they talk about, probably about rain. When they get new gum tips, they’re so full of sap they shiver in the air. Maybe they’re excited. Or frightened. (125)

Kennedy manages to create a story that is both hopeful and utterly desolate at the same time as she narrates through the eyes of her young protagonist. His learning disabilities and slightly deranged father (“it’s like deliverance down there”) are contrasted with the boys refined sense of beauty and observations of those around him.

Marion Halligan’s work has been in every collection I’ve read, and her piece “The Original Is Unfaithful to the Translation” takes the reader to almost the opposite place that Kennedy’s does. It’s a third person story of a woman’s reminiscence some 40 years after the fact—a story of love, insecurity, betrayal – a mature perspective on an immature liaison. Sophisticated, European, sprinkled with French, but with the kind of clean, engaging prose that Halligan is known for:

Forty years on Susan recalls reading that formal asseveration of love in a diary, and tries to remember what that summer of translation and treachery was like. F or she has decided that Gerard betrayed both la belle Suzanne and the beloved Margot – not least by schooling her in the English French – though she doesn not wish that she had not let him do it. A necessary treachery, she says to herself. (359)

Anson Cameron’s “Woman Weeping” is another rich exploration which dabbles with historical fact, producing something new in the heady world of Picasso and Braque. As is often the case with Cameron, the prose takes wild chances, leading the reader down a fictionalised historical path which is outrageous for its chutzpah:

Braque calling Picasso a cuckold, Picasso calling Braque a thief, while their sycophants stood glaring at each other. Braque tried to insert a silver Vietnamese opium pipe into Picasso’s ear, but had it confiscated by a supporter of the great Spaniard who held such acts lay outside the accepted behaviour of hand-to-hand combat. T hey wrestled and swore and by the time they had worn themselves to a hyperventilating stalemate of locked and quivering limbs and their respective posses of sycophants disentangled them and laid them gently on a chaise-longue apiece and administered eau de vie to their bloodless lips Laszlo had snatched up the Weeping Woman and made off with her once more. (272)

Other writers whose work stands out is Patrick Cullen’s “Dust”. Cullen had 3 pieces included in last year’s collection, and the piece here forms part of that series. The tone is similar to the others: a slow, sad piece covered with real dust from the steelworks which pervade the story and metaphorical dust from the trail of errors and loneliness that we leave as we move clumsily through life. The writing is careful, tight, and full of detail, from the glint of black dust particles reflected in the sunlight, to ants marching across the floor.

Shady Cosgrove’s two flash pieces are as evocative as they are brief. “Drop” is one of those pieces that grabs hold of something very much in the news at the moment – two boys dropping a rock over an overpass onto a car below. The writing is as racy and light, but in the wake of a recent freeway rock throwing incident that left a young Nowra woman with critical brain injuries, the inference of the story is intense. “Train” is equally powerful, tracing that moment of defiance and exuberance that goes with youth. It would almost be exhilarating but for the tragedy that leaves the reader with a sense of horror. Both pieces achieve a completeness which is unusual in such short narratives.

The book is filled with good stories, from Patrick Holland’s “Flame Bugs on the Sixth Island” with its dreamy, beautiful look at that moment of suspended time, or Tony Birch’s “The Good Howard” which is quirky, funny, and only a touch political.

One of the positive changes from previous collections is that there are far fewer novel extracts included here, in fact, I think there may only be one – Venaro Armanno’s “I Fell So Strong”, and that has a solid enough beginning, middle and end to stand alone. Some of the collections have had quite a few extracts, which is both less satisfying for the reader – after all good novels need you to read the whole book to read full meaning – and a kind of insult to the short story form. It seems to suggest that the short story is the less demanding cousin. While it is certainly less demanding in terms of the time it requires, it is no less demanding for the author. Good short fiction works a quite a different dimension to novels – it needs a fast denouement, and the language has to be sharper, cleaner, more exacting because of the limited space. All of this stories in this collection are complete – leaving the reader with some kind of denoument. Drewe has chosen well, and the book contains a good range of material, from the modern to the traditional, funny, serious, intense, lighthearted – funky or political. This a lovely read, full of interesting, well developed mini-worlds, notions, narrative voices, and themes to keep the reader engaged in short bites. Long may the series continue.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.