Friday, March 15, 2013

Reading Notes: An Opening and Like a House on Fire

This double review forms part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013 and to read the longlist for the 2013 Stella Prize.

As the shortlist is due to be announced next Wednesday, and I have just started the 7th title now, I concede defeat in my aim to read all 12 before the shortlist comes out.  If I can manage it, I will finish book 7 (Amy Espeseth's Sufficient Grace) and get a review up by Tuesday night. But I won't be doing any shortlist predictions based on just over half the titles read!

These two Stella-nominated books were a delight to read together and in many ways form a natural pair for review, as they are both short-form collections rather than novels or memoirs.

Cate Kennedy's Like a House on Fire is a short story collection of incredible bredth and skill, and I whipped through it at a rapid pace, finding it not only beautiful, meaningful and moving but also, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody good read.

Stephanie Radok's book is hard to describe as easily - I'd probably call it a collection of 12 reflections or essays on the relationship between art and life, loosely tied together by the thread of Radok's own life and the changing seasons of the year. It is much, much denser than Kennedy's collection, and it does, at times, make you work for it - I read this one much more slowly and there were times when it demanded more concentration than I had to give in my reading zone (typically 10:30-11:30pm, between work and sleep.)

Reacting viscerally, which is something I seem to be doing a lot with this prize list, Kennedy's collection is a heart-gut winner for me - I loved it, and I'll re-read it many times. In fact, in this my 6th book on the shortlist, I found the first serious rival to Sea Hearts in my affections, and, in my opinion, the third book that I'd definitely shortlist, regardless of the strength of the competition (The Burial and Sea Hearts being the other two).

Why? Well, I connected deeply with Kennedy's stories and her characters; I found some of them unbearably moving, some thought-provoking, some peppered with humour (although on the whole, these are not funny stories) but none heavy handed or contrived. There is a special art to writing the stories of everyday people doing everyday things, with no hooks or quirks or bizarrrities, and making those stories feel true and compelling. Kennedy has mastered this art thoroughly in this collection.

Her tales are of things and situations that anonymous people go through every day - a farm wife coming to terms with her husband's disability after an accident; a gay man, closeted to his family, scattering his father's ashes on the river; an underemployed bloke nicking sleepers from a railway project; a 12 year old girl obliquely reflecting her family's dysfunction through the lens of a summer pool; a depressed woman trying to get over a break up. Her particular magic is to draw the stories out of the abstract and into the mind and heart, without the slightest use of purple prose, with only the lightest, gentlest touch of symbolism (and after Questions of Travel, I have had enough symbolism to last me a goodly while!), and without obscure, "clever" dialogue. To realise these characters and their stories with such success in such a short format is in itself a feat, and not one all or even many writers can pull off.

There really isn't a bad story in this book, but I do have two favourites: "Cake", which is the story of a woman returning to work after maternity leave and the pull back to her child that torments her, and "White Spirit", the story of a community worker in a multi ethnic community who has commissioned and opened a mural. My reaction to "Cake" was astonished recognition; in this story, Kennedy has put lucid words around what I felt, but could never express, when I returned to work after my firstborn, and the reason why I chose to work only at home when I returned to work after my secondborn. I think I will just refer anybody who doesn't understand to this story in the future and say, "There. WHAT SHE SAID."

"White Spirit" had less of a personal resonance for me, but I found it an almost perfect example of how to tell something complex with few words and even fewer tricks. I think it's the story that best shows exactly why Kennedy is a better than good practitioner of the genre; she's a great.

As for An opening, to let my gut speak first again, I found it only sporadically engaging. There is no doubting Radok's erudition, both in art and in culture generally, and she is a beautiful writer - her words are as nuanced and colourful as the paintings she describes. It's also not that these essays are pretentious or overly academic in tone (although some of them are quite scholarly, which is not something I object to, being from an academic background myself).

It's just that, for me, Radok telescopes unevenly between her personal reflections and recollections and the wider, more philosophical musings that she engages in with respect to art (particularly indigenous art). I see what she was trying to do - to tie Life - Art - Philosophy - Nature up with one universally-binding ribbon - but I think it is only a partially successful result. I thought her connections were, at times, heavy handed and a little over-egged, and she has a tendency to floridity in style that isn't my preference. I tend to like drier, more reserved language, or else ironic, humourous or parodic styles; anything that verges on hyperbole (and this does, at times), loses me a little, as my innate mulishness objects to being thwacked repeatedly over the head with The Message, and What I Am Supposed to Think and Feel About It.

That said, there are some very delightful sections in this collection. Radok conveys her enthusiasm and love for art, and the way in which is informs her life, with real passion and grace, and the stories of her childhood are usually interesting and sometimes compelling. I think the book might have been better had it tried to do a little less, and been content to let meaning emerge organically rather than foregrounding every thought.

Shortlist verdict:

Yes for Like a House on Fire
No for An opening.

No comments:

Post a Comment