A review of The Best Australian Stories 2003

Creating a short story is a serious and compelling skill, and when it is done correctly, creates a powerful moment for the reader, full of the kind of intensity which can change the way we look at the world. Despite the focus on the novel in progress, this is still a good collection which will provide an interesting overview of the many different styles and settings of modern Australian writing.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Best Australian Stories 2003
Edited by Peter Craven
Black Inc
ISBN 186395077X, A$24.95, 441 pages, trade paper

Short story collections such as The Best Australian Stories have traditionally been sold in the summer. Since the stories are relatively short, they can be easily digested in small, separated reading sessions. This makes them especially suited to reading on the beach, on airplanes en route to holiday destinations, and while lounging by the pool. Of course not all of us spend our summers doing these things (if only…), but the idea of reading a complete piece without too many distractions, because you aren’t reading over a long period of time, is appealing. The compilation is also nice because it serves as a sampler for many different new voices. It is interesting and perhaps worrying, how many of the stories in The Best Australian Stories 2003 are extracts from novels due to come out in 2004. There can, potentially, be good stories enclosed within the borders of a full novel, but the short story is an art in itself, and requires skills and a structure which is not necessarily found in a full length fiction. That is to say that an extract is not the same thing as a story, and while the reading of some of the extracts in this collection such as Marion Cambell’s “Cisca Short-For-Nothing” which comes from her as yet unpublished novel Vanishing Switch is intriguing and pleasurable enough, it leaves the reader hungry for more and unsatisfied. The final denouement is missing, and the pace and structure is much slower, designed for 200+ pages rather than 10+. In all, there are thirteen extracts, which, in a collection that contains twenty-five stories in all, means that over fifty percent of the book comes from novel extracts.

The novel extracts are generally pretty good, although, once again, they seem to miss the all encompassing nature of a true short story, and end without resolution, showing us only a proportion of the overall story. In one of the most promising of these excerpts, Nicholas Shakespeare’s “Snowleg” for example, we are given only a tiny taste of the prose, and just a hint of the overall story. The setting is interesting and the characters have certainly begun to show their qualities, but the whole thing unfolds exactly as it should, as a portion of a chapter of a large work. The pulsation is too slow to work as a nine page story, and the reader is left teased, and puzzled, without a sense of the overall piece or even a theme. Similar problems occur with other excerpts like Peter Temple’s “Kingdom Come” with its hinting at a life changing event, its shadowy characterisation. All of this is perfect for a full novel, and one suspects that we would get to know the protagonist and his antagonists much better over the course of the entire work, but as it stands the reader is left hanging, uncertain of what he or she has just read, and confused about the ultimate meaning. We also get far less characterisation and meaning in Brian Castro’s “You Can Find Me in the Garden if You Want Me,” which touches on some big themes like prejudice and parental fear, along with a potentially powerful story of SIDs, but again, because this is meant for a full length novel, the reader is left with only confused imagery and a hint at something bigger. The final books for all of these works are sure to be good, and the excerpts hint at that, but they don’t work well as short stories.

Other short stories which have been written to be read as short stories, rather than taken from a longer work in progress, tend to be much more powerful. The darkly comic “Elephantitis” by Danielle Wood is as rich as it is ugly. The reader begins to absorb the self-hatred and frustration of the protagonist Meredith Watson, and her dark answer to the continued profusion of elephant jokes that people give to her, in kindness as well as misunderstanding, is as inspired as it is shocking. This is the short story form at its best – with complete characterisation, and a deep and satisfying conclusion which ties all the threads together. Other work that shines in this collection include Janette Turner Hospital’s “Hurricane Season” which creates a wonderful 9 step vignette a family awaiting a large storm called Francesca. The pre-storm excitement, along with the memorable setting, and three generational characterisation is all expertly woven together to make a thoughtful and driving piece. Marion Halligan’s “Possessed by the God” is also a blackly funny story of a philosopher and his dutiful wife. When biology intervenes with its uncontrollable beauty and fecundity, the tables get turned, and a very gentle O’ Henry type conclusion leaves the reader satisfied, while the tight prose never misses a beat. Mat Schulz’s “Shot Open” is also a powerful story of loneliness, love and fear, combining the Australian bush setting, and a well handled immigrant voice. The lingo of the narrator’s and the real vein of feeling which underscores the story works very well indeed.

Choosing the best short stories of the year can’t be an easy annual task for editor Peter Craven, and he is to be applauded for the variety of voices, all uniquely Australian without losing either their international flavour, or becoming staid in anyway. The settings include places as varied as a university, the USA, Europe, or the deepest bush, and the narratives vary from the first person in dialect to third person historical. It would be nice to see a collection which is solely short stories written as pieces of complete art in themselves, or at least containing far fewer excerpts from novels in progress, as it creates a sense that the true story is in some way a subservient art to the novel, rather than a complete and distinct form in itself. Creating a short story is a serious and compelling skill, and when it is done correctly, creates a powerful moment for the reader, full of the kind of intensity which can change the way we look at the world. Despite the focus on the novel in progress, this is still a good collection which will provide an interesting overview of the variety of Australian author. The overly heavy focus on the novel notwithstanding, readers who want to explore the many different styles and settings of Australian authors and work will find this to be an enjoyable, and absorbing collection.