2012, 277 p.
Like a House on Fire is a book of short stories. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ll know what’s going to come next. I’m going to say that I don’t know how to talk about a collection of short stories. That I don’t know how to read them- one at a time and feeling short-changed, or moving on to the next one and feeling bloated. That they finish before I have time to engage at any level with the character. That I just don’t like them.
Well, none of that is true with this book.
Perhaps, after 15 years of being able to indulge my love of reading more fully, I have finally learned how to read a short story. My discovery: one story at a time ONLY , then go on to read a non-fiction book instead. The single story has enough space to expand; it’s not squashed down to fit the next one in.
Or perhaps, these are very, very good short stories. They have all been published elsewhere in journals and magazines as is often the case in compilations like this. Every single one of them is memorable, and for me that’s a big thing. All too often I find myself reading the next story in a collection because the last one has been too insubstantial: the term ‘meh’ fits exactly.
But with these stories, each one is memorable in its own right, and I found myself recognizing their truths in other places. The story ‘Five Dollar Family’, for example, where a new young mother, exhausted, drained, looks to her dead-beat young partner and is stiffened into resolve to move beyond him- surely I saw the story lived out in an episode of ‘The Midwives’ a few weeks ago where a young single mother in Manchester likewise grew up, almost before your eyes, through the act of giving birth. Or the story ‘Cake’ where a new mother returns to work for the first day, torn by the act of leaving her child at creche, feeling as if she is play-acting a pre-baby life that she has moved beyond- even if you haven’t been in that situation, I think we’ve all felt the way that workplace routine comes a sepia filmreel, a nothingness, after some big, life-changing event.
Many of these stories involve bodies: most particularly women’s bodies and medical intervention- the night before a breast biopsy; the waiting room before a miscarriage is diagnosed. Others are told from a male or a child’s perspective. The story which gives the collection its title is about a young father with back-ache and it is so well told that you find yourself arching your own back in response, while at the same time suppressing the suspicion that he’s exaggerating. The opening story, ‘Flexion’ which takes in a longer timespan that many of the other slice-of-life stories in this collection do, traces a wife’s ambivalent response as her leathered, laconic farmer husband recovers after a tractor accident.
For me, it says a lot that I can flip through the book, glimpse the title at the top of the page and instantly recall what the story was about. I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed a collection of short stories so much. I wouldn’t feel in the least disgruntled or short changed should it win the Stella Prize for which it has been short-listed.
My rating: 9.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: it was long listed for the Stella Prize. Reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013