I have a rather ambivalent attitude towards short stories, and I find them very hard to review beyond merely summarizing them. Finally, after many decades, I have worked out that I enjoy them most when I read just one story at a sitting, no matter how brief, and leave it to percolate overnight until moving on to the next one. They are also very good for late-night reading when you’re too tired to read anything that involves memorizing actions or characters beyond that one act of reading.
However, I do like Debra Adelaide’s short stories. Flipping through the book beside me now, I can recognize and remember nearly each story on reading a paragraph or two (my test of whether a story has ‘stuck’ or not). The stories are arranged into three parts on the basis of whether they are narrated in first, second or third person, and the final story ‘Zebra’ is more novella than short-story at 121 pages.
First Part starts with ‘Dismembering’ where we see a woman who has a vivid dream that she and her ex-husband dismembered a corpse which they buried in her back garden. She is so un-nerved by the dream that she begins divesting herself of all the possessions that she had brought to her second marriage in what seems to be a steady mental unravelling. ‘Welcome to Country’ sees another form of cleaning-out as a woman, in a near-future Australia, begins gathering together her now-absent son’s belongings from the 1990s to take to ‘Country’, a fenced off, separate outback community where a mean-spirited government holds those claiming ‘sovereignty’ or refusing to conform, in perpetual detention. ‘A Fine Day’ a woman visits her friend Alex, who is trying to get his ex-wife to return to him. His ex-wife Helen, doesn’t want to be found despite her own loneliness. The story has a very Chekhovian ending.
The Second Part starts with ‘Festive Food for the Whole Family’ which I very much enjoyed, given that I was reading it just before Christmas. Given in the form of advice, like a magazine article, it talks about how the successful Christmas host will prepare food to meet all the dietary requirements of demanding guests. Meanwhile, her husband is becoming increasingly familiar with his sister-in-law and so the carving knife comes in handy. ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart’ is a description of the “leaden numbing pain” that sets your body in turmoil and makes even the slightest job, like shopping, an ordeal. ‘Migraine for Beginners’ is obviously written by someone who has experienced migraines (although, for me, my migraines are more of the Hildegarde von Bingen variety- see below). ‘The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise’ is set in an offshore refugee ‘facility’ which is certainly not Paradise, where a young boy establishes a barber shop as a way of filling in time until he can move to the mainland.
The Third section starts with a lovely story ‘Carry Your Heart’ where a woman meets a man in a bookshop- what book lover could not respond to a romance in a bookshop? In ‘I am at Home Now’ Debra Adelaide writes from the perspective of Mrs Phillips, who cared for Bennelong, when he travelled to England with another indigenous man Yemmerrawanne in 1792 with Governor Phillip. ‘No Hot Drinks in the Ward’ takes us to the children’s cancer ward of a hospital, where a mother with a sick child has been tossed into a world she never wanted to be part of. ‘Nourishment’ carries on this theme, where a wife is visiting her husband in hospital, where he is fasting before surgery. In ‘The Recovery Position’ Cate is an ex-soldier, now conducting workplace training in First Aid classes. Teaching CPR triggers her memory of returning to Tarin Kowt with Trooper Brad Innes in a helicopter. ‘Wipe Away Your Tears’ starts in a plane over Istanbul as a couple visit Gallipoli. Her husband, Harry, is searching for the grave of his great-grandfather but he has not properly mourned his brother Johnny, who had died in a car accident.
‘Zebra’ is by far the longest story in the book. Set in the Lodge in Canberra, there is a female P.M. who reminds us just a little of Julia Gillard. She is unmarried, calm, unhurried and she finds herself drawn to the beauty of the gardens around the lodge where she discovers that her neighbour, Kerr, has been surreptitiously shifting the fence. Somehow she manages to float above all the political turmoil, and she finds a still point in the gift of a zebra which arrives unsolicited at the Lodge. She is lonely, and attracted to her staffer, but is fearful of being spurned. It is all a bit fey and implausible, and but then again…look at Gladys. Who would have thought that romance could haunt the corridors of power?
So, all in all, a strong selection of stories that I felt perfectly happy to pick up each night. I think that ‘Zebra’ will remain in my mind because it was so strange, and I may think of ‘Festive Food for the Whole Family’ next Christmas (and send up a silent prayer of thanks that my own Christmases are much more pleasant occasions.)
Rating: who knows. I can never rate collections of short stories.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.