Imagining a nation

March 5, 2003

Peter Craven (ed.) The Best Australian Stories 2002 Melbourne: Black Inc., 2002.

Reviewed by Felicity Henderson

9781863951951This is the third volume of Australian stories edited by Peter Craven in recent years, and, like the others, it claims to represent the ‘best’ new fiction by Australian writers.  Twenty-three writers contribute twenty-four pieces of writing, many of which have not been published before in any form, and some of which are extracts from works-in-progress rather than short stories in the traditional definition. Peter Craven, in his substantial introduction to the anthology, fires off various salvos at Australian cultural institutions or commentators he sees as inimical to his project (and hence, it seems, to Australian literature itself).  These need not concern the reader unless the reader is curious about the cut-throat world of Australian literary publishing.  More interesting is Craven’s comment that ‘a nation can only feel it exists when it imagines itself’.  If these stories contribute to Australia’s imagined identity, what do they tell us about ourselves?

Present in several of these stories is the suggestion of something hidden under the surface of the Australian landscape: an event that might be ignored or forgotten, but will inevitably come to light in a frightening and life-changing way.  Perhaps this sense of underlying tension stems from our sometimes savage history of colonisation and repression, which successive governments have done their best to bury or deny.  Generations of farmers and town-planners have stamped a certain European-style identity on the land, taming it with roads and fences and cultivating imported livestock and vegetation.  However, the ferocity of bushfires and the desolation caused by drought or floods keep reminding us that we have a tenuous grasp on this country.  We have an uneasy sense that we don’t belong here.

Our ambivalent relationship with the landscape lurks in the background of several writers’ stories. In Sonya Hartnett’s ‘The Dying Words of the Archangel’, a man lies dying in his bedroom and another hides in the bush outside town. The men are linked by the discovery of bones in the forest. It is not explained whose bones have been found, but the narrative suggests the archetypal Australian story of children lost in the bush. It is a beautiful piece of writing, illustrating the inner lives and voices of its two contrasting characters with clarity and detail, and an attention to the physical and imagined world that seduces the reader. However, as an extract from a forthcoming book it is slightly too elusive to stand alone here as the first chapter of the anthology.

Liam Davison’s sparse prose charts the progress of another ‘lost child’ story, though again the original loss hovers in the background as the memory of sorrow. Many of Davison’s short stories use the Australian landscape and in particular the beach as a setting which sometimes dominates the action, both mirroring and influencing characters’ inner lives. ‘Men like Beattie’ locates two men on a surf-beach and explores the way their memories continue to shape their lives.

Recently published as a novel, John Scott’s eerie story ‘Warra Warra’ tells of a small Australian country town gradually taken over by the ghosts of people killed when a British Airways flight crashed there. The ghosts are English, and their cardigans, mournful expressions and the dampness that accompanies their presence all contrast shockingly with the brightness and dry heat of the outback town.  This is a story of ghastly re-colonisation and, though it is left unstated, we remember that the Aborigines thought the original English invaders were ghosts when they first encountered them, and were just as helpless against them as the inhabitants of the story are against these new English ghosts.

In ‘Christ stopped at Echuca’ Jack Hibberd takes elements of the bush stories that are Australia’s foundation myths and re-narrates them in a burlesque parody. In his hands, Australia’s colonial history becomes a fantastic patchwork of comic-grotesque images and literally larger-than-life characters, including wild Irishmen, itinerant preachers, giant kangaroos, and a bunyip. However, the underlying theme of white oppression of landscape and native inhabitants remains obvious in stark contrast to the overt comedy of the piece.

Relationships, like the Australian landscape, have their concealed histories and dangerous places. The anthology includes several stories which explore the complexities of human interaction. Most are told in the realist mode and are situated in the ordinariness of their characters’ daily lives, against which the occasional extraordinary action or insight take on an unusual clarity. Catherine Ford’s ‘Anchorage’ describes a day on a French beach, and the interaction between two families who know each other well, but whose inner lives are hidden from each other, or at best only partially revealed.  Joan London, in ‘The New Dark Age’, follows a man whose relationships are quietly disintegrating after his recovery from cancer.  London’s story demonstrates the way a person’s inner and outer worlds can spin away from each other without any warning, and without any outward appearance of change. Brian Matthews’s story ‘Literary Criticism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics’ describes a literature lecturer’s emotional response to a text in which the main character is suffering relationship problems that mirror his own.  The tension in Matthews’s story comes from the conflict between the lecturer’s (and his students’) understanding of his job as a literary critic, and his inability to discuss this piece of literature in an objective manner.  Unexpectedly, he finds sympathy from one of his students rather than derision or incomprehension.  Philomena van Rijswijk in ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ tells a simple but engaging story of a man remembering his boyhood and the seemingly-necessary lie he told his mentally-disabled sister.  Lisa Merrifield’s ‘One Lovely Thing’ explores the dynamics of a family in which the father’s character is completely, tragically, different from his wife and children.

A couple of stories, also written in the realist mode, stood out for this reviewer. In Amanda Lohrey’s ‘Reading Madame Bovary’ a young Australian woman agrees to accompany her schoolteacher boyfriend and a group of underprivileged children on a canal-boat trip in England. The scene seems set for a miserable week. Instead, Kirsten has an epiphany, recognising herself in Flaubert’s self-pitying heroine. She chooses to make the best of the situation rather than spend the time feeling cheated and bitter.  This simple story nevertheless commands the reader’s attention. The insight gained by the central character, prompted by her reading of the French classic and her damp holiday in the British Midlands, is perhaps not profound. However, it is born of being an alien in a foreign culture. In answer to the children’s query about ‘why she bought so many vegetables . . . she told them it was an Australian custom’. She relates heroic stories of the bush, realising as she does so that ‘she was constructing a mythical landscape . . . Some other planet that was hot, white and ferocious’. This reconstruction, something surely done by every Australian abroad in Europe, reminds us of our traditional status as Antipodean other. Like Kirsten, we understand ourselves best when we come into contact with foreign cultures.

Delia Falconer’s ‘The Intimacy of the Table’ is another story about a young Australian encountering an unfamiliar scene. This time it is an aspiring poet who spends an evening in the company of Kenneth Slessor in 1950s Sydney. Falconer deftly evokes the cultural climate of the time: the young narrator tells us that a poem of Slessor’s had appeared in his school reader ‘miraculously, among the work of well-known, foreign poets’. This picture of an Australia still lacking confidence in its own cultural productions is mirrored by Falconer’s narrator himself, whose ‘shabby cream suit’, handkerchief and hipflask signal his literary pretensions but who never finds the right moment to show Slessor his folio of poems. Instead, he dines with the great poet at a restaurant where the European-style ‘rituals of the service’ are foreign to the young man. The intimacy of the table proves to be false or illusory: the young admirer comes to see that the poet’s life is withdrawn and essentially incommunicable, and that his hoped-for initiation into the writer’s mystery will not take place. Falconer’s vision of this fictitious meeting is detailed, and her hero-worshipping but hesitant narrator is realistically and likeably drawn.

These stories span a wide range of genres and themes, and illustrate the depth of contemporary Australian writing. Apart from those already mentioned, the anthology contains work by Tegan Bennett, Gerard Windsor, J.M. Coetzee, Gerald Murnane, Peter Mathers, Jessica Anderson, Graham Henderson, Anson Cameron, Tim Richards, Joe McKenna, Bernard Cohen and Peter Temple. Not every reader will like every story, but most will find something to enjoy in this collection.

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