2019, 246 p.
What a powerful pull holiday places returned to year after year have on our hearts! For me, it’s the family’s time-capsule caravan down at West Rosebud…oops, Capel Sound. Sixty years. We shared in the oft-returned familiarity other people’s holiday places too. There was our neighbours’ fibro house down at Dromana that accommodated three branches of the extended family at one time in the ‘boys’ room’ with three bunk beds, the smaller girls’ room (because girls were scarce in the family). The house was still owned by Nana, who had her own bedroom and septic tank toilet (when everyone else had to use the dunny). As a nation, we all sighed at “Ah, the serenity!” when Darryl Kerrigan takes his family up to the house under the electricity pylons at Bonnie Doon in the Australian film The Castle.
Then there was my cousins’ holiday house on the Hopkins River out of Warrnambool, in an old electricity power station, rising up out of the river against a steep embankment. Being a power station, it was a cavernous building, with no natural light. But what a spot- surrounded by bush, and with no-one else around.
It was my cousin’s holiday house that came to mind in reading Vicki Hastrich’s Night Fishing although in her case, it was a cottage against a steep hill that could only be accessed by water on a Brisbane Water estuary at Woy Woy. Her parents and their friends would take six kids, food, ice and pets to Woy Woy and the continual return there each holiday encapsulated her happiest times, attuned to the tides and the water, drawn to the solitude and unpredictability of fishing and ensconced in the familiarity of returning year after year.
This is a series of essays that have elements of memoir, although there is no over-arching structure to tie them together. At first, not quite sure what is was that I was reading, I wondered if it was a bit like a non-fiction version of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge books, where an oblique reference in one story is picked up by another. It seemed for a while as if that was the organising principle of the essays, but then it didn’t seem to work for the last quarter of the book.
What does tie the collection together is, as the title suggests, the theme of fishing and water. The initial and final stories are both about fishing. In the opening story ‘The Hole’, she and her brother Roger return to a fabled family fishing spot as adults, and in the final story ‘Bucket of Fish’ she heads into her little fibreglass boat The Squid to use up the last bits of fish in the freezer as summer subsides into late autumn. The eponymous ‘Night Fishing’ story appears half way through, where she decides to go out in her little boat for some night fishing, and loses all sense of direction and location in the darkness. Others are more discursive, but still with a fishy theme. ‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’, she and brother Rog go out in The Squid again, this time with a bathyscope, which leads her into a reflection of Galileo. ‘From the Deep it Comes’ starts about about catching salmon, but then diverges into a discussion of Zane Grey.
Not all the stories are about fishing. In ‘Things Seen’ she reflects on the act of being a witness to things seen, recollecting a family story about Uncle Ev, a returned WWI soldier with PTSD, and moving on to Goya’s 82-plate work The Disasters of War, drawn during the Peninsula War between 1808-1814. The theme of ‘seeing’ is taken up in ‘My Life and the Frame’, where she discusses her work as an ABC camera operator, merging into a discussion of Tiepolo’s painting Allegory of the Planets and Continents, and her sense of failure over writing what she describes as a ‘baroque Australian novel’. Her ‘History of Lawn Mowing’ starts with a tribute to the late Australian writer Georgia Blain, who had her first seizure in her backyard. It then shifts to a reflection of the dirt under the house where she keeps the mower, where asbestos and the shellfish midden of the indigenous people of the place mingle in the dusty dark.
I always find it hard to review short stories, and I guess that books of essays fall into the same category. Explaining them makes them sound flat and trite: they are better read on the page rather than in a review. I do confess to becoming a little bored of the fish, but I loved the sunlight that suffuses her memories of childhood and a treasured place. I liked that when starting a story, you were not ever quite sure where you were going to end up. And I loved her eye, that was caught by the beauty of the ordinary, and the way that her writing captured it so sharply that you could see it too.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
I have included this on the database of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.
That’s a lovely review. Thanks. It helps me see something in the book that spoke to me at the time but that I didn’t quite catch … that is, the way it stirred my own memories of holidays at the beach, both in my own childhood and in the early years of parenthood.
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