A review of The Best Australian Stories 2005

This is an accessible collection with stories that almost always add up to something which wasn’t there before. The economy and careful construction of this work is one which a serious reader will appreciate–Moorhouse has chosen well–but overall, what is most appealing about The Best Australian Stories 2005 is simply how enjoyable they are.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Best Australian Stories 2005
Frank Moorhouse (Ed)
Black Inc.
ISBN 186 395 2454, November 2005, RRP$au24.95

As a literary form, the short story remains the most immediately accessible. It’s brevity, first and foremost, and the way it immerses the reader instantly into another world, with a full set of beats towards the denouement, should render it amongst the most popular for readers. The paucity of short story collections gracing the bestseller lists is therefore surprising. Perhaps this is because, like poetry, the best stories seem to come out of sponsored prizes, literary magazines and anthologies, and other mixed author collections like the annual Best Australian Short Stories books published by Black Inc. It is one of the benefits of the form that readers can taste and sample such a variety of narratives, literary styles, and genres in one volume. This sixth edition of the series contains twenty-six stories selected and set out by respected writer and master of the form Frank Moorhouse, who called for submissions from the Australian Society of Authors, the well known literary magazines, national competitions, literary festivals, and other general submissions. It couldn’t have been an easy task. The result is rather like a box of exquisite chocolates. There are soft centres, crunchy nutty ones you want more of, ones that come across as slightly too sweet for one reader or too bitter for another. That’s the beauty of the form however, since each story is a complete experience. You can start and finish a story within an hour, maybe just before going to bed, where it unfolds in sleep to meld with your own experiences: colouring your dreams. Or you can read a story to remove yourself from the mundane, like a train trip or standing in a queue–taking refuge in someone’s else’s problems, the demise of relationships, sexual confusion, mistaken identity, the long term effects of stillbirth, life after death, or the myriad of other themes, plots, characters and situations which make up the stories in this collection.

The stories chosen are as varied as the authors, who range from newly published eighteen year old Alli Bernard, whose “How to Love Broken Glass” is lightening fast, taking a post-modern meditation on a seductive and destructive relationship, to the very experienced, silky smooth sexy prose of Peter Goldsworthy’s confused protagonist in “Mirror, Mirror.” Like any collection of such a mixed range of narratives, there will be stories which appeal to readers and others which don’t. For me, one of the most moving story is by maven Janette Turner Hospital in “Blind Date,” where the narrator, Lachlan, is a blind ten year old, hoping his missing father will appear at his sister’s wedding. Hospital perfectly captures the sensual, but matter-of-fact world of this boy, whose yearning is conveyed to the reader:

His face was pressed into his father’s shirt where the collar met the yoke and there was a damp vibrating sweetness that Lachlan recognised. The smell was like baskets of clothing waiting to be ironed and like the mounds of sheet where his mother set him down while she folded and stacked. The sensation was familiar too: the sinking into softness, the smell of clean, the muted thrum against his ear.
When Lachlan’s father shows up in his dreams, he trails washdays.(72)

Like many of the stories in this collection, “Blind Date” captures an authentic characterisation, an authentic Australian sense of place, and something more–some big truth about human nature, pain, loss and growth.

Breaking with the tradition of including a single story from each chosen author, Moorehouse has included three related stories by Patrick Cullen. “Mauve,” “Collapsing Under Their Own Weight,” and “’And?’ are threaded together by character and situation, and it is fascinating to see how Cullen manages the change of time and place between stories. Although each piece can be read as a stand-alone story, they work perfectly together; following a married couple, Paul and Carol, as their relationship suffers through a minor breakdown in Paul’s life, and then a medical one in Carol’s. The rhythm and timing between these characters is powerful, as is the impact of others, along with the self-referential nature of Paul’s epiphany:

And he was going to keep writing until he knew what it felt like to have the screwdriver under the lid of the pain tin, until he could already hear the sound of the lid peeling back from the lip of the tin, until he could see, really see, and smell the paint as he rolled it onto the bedroom walls. He was going to keep writing until he knew what it felt like to have the rest of his life ahead of him. “Mauve“ (28)

The point of desire which drives the plot forward shifts from the first story to the last, but in both cases, whether Carol or Paul, the desire remains melancholy and unconsummated.

Relationships on the verge of collapse, the difficulty of communication, and sexual confusion are the most common themes in this book, and the dichotomy between what a character feels and what is described is handled deftly by all of the authors who deal with these universal topics. Joanna Kujawa’s slow and dreamy “Wild Horses,” shifts from a freewheeling Bali fling with a married man, to one where it is impossible to see who is captive and who is the captor; who is leaving whom. The descriptions of Bali are lush:

On the last night they walk on the beack streets of Jimbaran, the village they didn’t see, away from the beach and the sea,. Small, hidden streets behind a thousand-year-old Hindu temple, decorated with offerings to the gods. Rice, flowers and fruit on tiny trays of palm leaves. The statues of gods in checkered sarongs around their hips and blood-red hibiscus flowers behind their elongated ears. Their stone bodies are overgrown with the moss of monsoon topics.(96)

A similar power shift occurs in Chris Mansell’s tightly written “This Thistle,” where the angular sharp beauty of a thistle becomes representative for the pain of love deliberately uprooted and destroyed. The sharpness is softened by the gentle narration from a distanced friend, whose own longing to participate is kept at bay by busyness and fear: “She thought about the way the world was barely hanging together: unseen energies keeping each other in check; life, somehow, seeping through and making itself. She watched the world for the chinks and mishaps, and for the subtle unfolding of the leaves and creation of one spark out of another, not ‘new life’ but changed energy which burst through the interstices.” (101) It is the changed energy bursting through the interstices which drives this, and many of the other stories in this collection.

Danielle Wood’s “The True Daughter,” is superb in the way it slowly reveals the impact of that changed energy, in the parallels between a terminally ill woman and her carer. The impact of daughter “Kate,” and the tenderness and sense of loss which is conveyed in this story is almost unbearable delicate. The reader simultaneously cheers for and feels sorry for the carer Tamsin as she takes on the burden of her patient’s memories, and finds a way to exist that mitigates the loss. The number of subtly handled twists in this story and the patient progression of the narration is a perfect example of what a well-written short story can do.

In fact, despite a few stories which may touch on experiences the reader doesn’t identify with, or a few which come across as less smooth than others, most of the stories in this immensely enjoyable collection are examples of what a well-written story can do. There are no novel “excerpts” here (a flaw in many short story collections), or work so experimental that it is unreadable. This is an accessible collection with stories that almost always add up to something which wasn’t there before. The economy and careful construction of this work is one which a serious reader will appreciate–Moorhouse has chosen well–but overall, what is most appealing about The Best Australian Stories 2005 is simply how enjoyable they are. Read them together in a big combined sessions, or savour them slowly, one at a time in moments where only a small scale but complete fiction will do. This is indulgence of the most pleasurable kind.