shining the spotlight on short story collections
“It has taken a huge effort to say the word love and she throws it away. I cried because I love her but I can’t say it as we never talk about feelings.”
There are many odd characters who people the stories in Mary Manning’s debut collection of short fiction, Damaged in Transit. Some are beyond saving: the creepy loner in The Painter, the old woman who decides to give up in Traffic Island, or the two-time criminal in Poor Old Money. Sometimes it’s too late for redemption, as in Love You, while in Black Opal, the events of the story will play out, utterly devoid of mercy. In some stories, such as in Customer Care and The Third Great Bang, Manning explores something beyond realism, segueing into fantasy and elements of science fiction. Such stories sit, at first, uneasily among the main seam of realism, but are so inventive witty and delightful that you soon forgive the author for throwing you so clearly out of the box you unwittingly plonk yourself in when you pick up a book, decide almost unconsciously to which genre it belongs in, and almost right away straitjacket yourself into your own preconceptions.
Traffic Island, which opens the collection is told in the present tense, as are so many in this book. It’s the simple story of an old woman, Flora, who crosses a large busy street to consult a chartered accountant and tax agent. But this is a woman who is emotionally tired beyond belief, and as the story unfolds we witness how that ennui will get the better of her, so allowing us a small glimpse of how it is that people can fade from the mainstream of life, becoming homeless, giving up, as it were, existing, although barely, on the edges of life. “She could wait …” the story explains, but as the story nears its conclusion we realise that Flora will do more than wait, and waiting is but a euphemism for giving up. A strange story; at first I recoiled from the events related in it, but it remains sharp in my recollection, and I keep returning to it in my mind, playing over the possibilities of those who wait, retreat, give up, and how easily that can happen.
Less successful for me was the more lengthy Love You – Manning’s stories are, for the most part briefer than this one – which explores a sibling relationship. An artist who has lived in New York for twenty years returns to Australia and visits his sister, who has aged and let her hair go grey and who greets him with her arm in plaster from a recent fall. The two try to reach across the years and their distance: “It has taken a huge effort to say the word love and she throws it away. I cried because I love her but I can’t say it as we never talk about feelings.” And yet, ultimately, there’s scant hope of reaching beyond what each has become in their own ways, and they can do no more than walk along their own paths, accepting what is, instead of trying to change what remains. Another sad story, with so many resonances.
A spotlight is shone on the dark side of human behaviour in The Painter and Poor Old Money. The Painter starts out innocently enough in detached third person. We’re hearing the voice of a troubled, immature young man who paints houses for a living but develops unhealthy obsessions with those who own the homes. A disturbing story, made more so by the empathy we feel for the young, lonely man. I can’t say I felt any empathy, though, for the scoundrel in Poor Old Money, who robs an elderly woman of her cash, all part of a day’s work of robbing the elderly. The story lurches towards its inevitable conclusion – while all the time we’re hoping for, perhaps, a surprise ending.
I loved Customer Care, which veered off into fantasy and play within the realist mode. We find ourselves within an ordinary Australian backyard in which Bell, the narrator, is sitting around a table in her Ma’s backyard. She’s rather weary of her boyfriend, Kaydyn. We soon discover that she, in fact, bought Kaydyn at a store, as one does a boyfriend or girlfriend. But you can’t always buy love or compatibility, and thank goodness for the returns policy at shops! A delightful story, so entertainingly told and yet with undercurrents running though it. We may not, yet, be able to buy a DIY model, but internet dating is all about clicking on the boxes, shopping for a future mate and ignoring one who smokes, or is too tall – and what perils can lie there too in searching for a mate as you would a sofa. Not that people haven’t found their significant others that way – but when you reduce love and relationships to a set of strict criteria you can so easily miss out on The One.
In The Third Great Bang Manning again takes us into an alternative universe. In this one it’s a world where you can decide what you want to be in your next life, choosing within the categories of making, thinking, growing or helping. Each life ends at the age of thirty – and you must decide or your next life may be decided for you. But, what if you can find a way out of that world, out of that conditioning? Another entertaining story – as so many of Manning’s are – but beneath it all lies the chill axe of reality.
Read Traffic Island here
About the reviewer: Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions and The Fire in which we Burn. Her third, Indigo Streets, is forthcoming from Modjaji Books/Dye Hard Press in 2014. Her debut collection of fiction The Thin Line, was published in 2010. She has twice won the Sanlam Award. She is the lifestyle and arts editor at The Sunday Independent.