shining the spotlight on short story collections
Edited by Richard Rossiter with Susan Midalia
Contributing authors: Claire Aman, Rosie Barter, Leanne Browning, Linda Brucesmith, Peter Curry, Lauren Foley, Kathy George, Paulette Gittins, Cassie Hamer, Glen Hunting, Zacharey Jane, Melanie Kinsman, Wes Lee, Kristen Levitzke, Isabelle Li, Susan McCreery, Melanie Napthine, Bindy Pritchard, Rachelle Rechichi, Kate Rotherham, Francesca Sasnaitis, Mark Smith, Leslie Thiele, Ruth Wyer.
Margaret River Press, 2014
Reviewed by Sarah Schofield
In the evening they talked about how they felt the country was reaching out to embrace them; how their rejuvenation of the old farm was met with grace by the land itself. They walked up to the ridge, running their fingers through the tall grass, stroking the trees and stopping every now and again to allow Sarah to rest. (Butcher’s Creek by Mark Smith)
She stands watch over lunchtime conversations, unable to break in. The easy banter. It’s like trying to board a moving train. She resorts to anecdotes where she is the punchline. (The Trouble with Flying by Ruth Wyer)
The Trouble with Flying and other stories is an anthology collecting together the prizewinning and shortlisted entries from the Margaret River Short Story Competition 2014.
The first prize went, deservedly, to Ruth Wyer, whose entry gives the anthology its title. In her story we follow socially awkward teenager Rita as, with great apprehension, she begins college. Wyer has created a character who is unique and original in her adopted uniform of charity shop State Rail Authority shirts and her ‘pathological fear of putting herself down on paper’. But Rita is also endearingly familiar to anyone who has ever felt at odds with their peers, place in society or ambitions. A flawless balance of character and plot, it is neatly wrought as the end folds perfectly into the beginning without feeling contrived or forced. It is a confident, well measured and, most of all, moving piece of writing.
There are several other stories that particularly resonate for me. In Potholes by Kate Rotherham, the relationship between a father and son is explored through a guerilla gardening campaign. Its light humorous tone carefully veils the story’s poignant punch.
I also particularly like Claire Aman’s Zone of Confidence. The story is structured as a chase – a woman rides her boyfriend’s motorbike along the coast pursuing him on a boat delivery job – secretly, obsessively. This structure gives the piece energy and movement, the sea becoming a physical and metaphorical obstacle. The protagonist says ‘I’m murderous jealous of the sea. I hope it burns and boils itself dry.’
I adore Red Saffron by Isabelle Li. The narrator is cooking an erotically charged feast for her lover. She considers how she will tell her dinner guest, Walter, about the art of cooking; that you must allow ‘the ingredients to encounter, embrace, play, submit to the power of each other, and integrate.’ She is feisty; as delicious as the food she is preparing, but she is ‘nobody’s honeysuckle.’ Unapologetic and surprising, this story lingers with me long after reading.
Many of the stories explore ageing and the challenges that accompany it. The one that I most favour is Walking the Dog by Kathy George. The relationship between the father, infirm yet stubbornly independent, and his anxious daughter is subtly handled and convincing. There is depth to the narrative; I felt the weight of known history between them in a few well-judged moments; ‘she heads for the bathroom – going to the toilet is her way of checking on my housekeeping.’
With 24 stories gathered together, the collection is hugely diverse. Maybe the strongest unifying feature is the calibre of the narratives. There didn’t feel to be any that did not deserve their place on the competition shortlist.
There is however a danger in such a large collection of overindulgence – that feeling when you have gobbled too many stories in an anthology in one sitting and failed to fully appreciate each delicious bite. The size of this collection was initially my one, rather paltry and trifling gripe. Sometimes less really is more. However, on reflection I think this potential detractor has been avoided through carefully considered compilation. Editors Richard Rossiter and Susan Midalia have curated the narratives brilliantly. There’s often a change of gears between stories – for example, placing Lauren Foley’s Sqiggly Arse Crack, a humorous exploration of maintaining identity despite encroaching motherhood, next to Bedtime Stories by Linda Brucesmith, a ghostly tale exploring the gulf between the world of children and the grownups. Although both stories tackle a similar theme of the relationship between mothers and children the difference in tone, genre and style ensures the stories showcase, rather than overshadow, one another. There is a wider design arc over the entire collection. As Rossiter outlines in the introduction ‘this selection of stories encompasses a wide range of moods and modes as writers engage with issues to do with childhood, young adulthood, middle age, old age and death.’ Arranged neatly into these stages of life the stories work independently but also on a larger architecture that is satisfying and effective.
Kudos to The Margaret River Press for championing original short fiction from both well-established and emerging writers. With a concentration of finely written character pieces and stories that tackle the challenges of being human, there will be stories here that will surely resonate with all readers. The anthology for 2015 Margaret River Press short story competition is already listed on their website. This is definitely a competition anthology series to be admired and read.
About the reviewer: Sarah Schofield’s stories have been published in Lemistry, Bio-Punk, Thought X and Beta Life (all Comma Press) Spilling Ink Flash Fiction Anthology, Back and Beyond Arts Publication, Litfest’s The Language of Footprints, Synaesthesia Magazine and others. She has been shortlisted on the Bridport and the Guardian Travel Writing Competition and won the Orange New Voices Prize and The Calderdale Fiction Prize. An excerpt from her story The Bactogarden recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book.