Small Rooms, Expansive Views: Mind-stretching Short Reads for Lockdown

When the lockdown first hit, many writers said they couldn’t write. And many usually voracious readers said they couldn’t read. It’s as if there was a mass readers-and-writers block. Whether that’s the case or not, I’ve been reading much more than writing. This isn’t a surprise. Whenever I get stuck with writing I turn to books that will stretch the mind.

So I plunged into Hilary Mantel’s glittering boulder of a book, the final in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and The Light, but I began to intersperse these long-haul travels with shorter works. I’ve highlighted some of these below. All of them blur boundaries between short story collections, short novels, novellas, and perhaps also poetry. In their brevity, risk, restraint, and precision, they peck away at walls and pick the locks of doors, throwing open the shutters to other worlds.

Short Story Collections

Swallow The Air – Tara June Winch

Yesterday, the Australian First Nations writer Tara June Winch won the prestigious 2020 Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Yield.

I’ve just finished her compelling first book, Swallow The Air, which can be read as a novel, or a series of discrete contemporary stories piecing together the fractured lives of her protagonists.

In beautiful sharp prose, the author invites us in to the physical and emotional realities of May and Billy, whose mother has died. May and Billy take very different uncertain paths, a process echoed in the structure of the book, especially the narrative spaces between each stories. These gaps in time and changes of place illuminate their shattered lives, while conjuring a thrumming absence. There is also a momentum, a focus, an urgency to find belonging and wholeness.

The layering of silence and story offers brief moments of readjustment as the reader orients themselves to each new situation. These pauses exist in the silences of family dynamics, the secrets, the private gains, and losses. They also point to the gaps and denials of elements of the outside world, which doggedly persists in trying to silence Indigenous Australians now, and in colonial versions of history.

Listen here to Tara June Winch discussing her work with another Miles Franklin winner, Melissa Lucashenko, as part of the Talking Ideas program at the State Library of Queensland.

Smart Ovens For Lonely People – Elizabeth Tan

Elizabeth Tan’s new short story collection Smart Ovens For Lonely People follows her acclaimed novel-in-stories Rubik. Each of these new stories tilts the world on its axis as she spins a witty and dizzying line between past, present, future, and messes with the borders between human and technology, despair and desire, humour and tragedy.

In ‘Disobeying’, a writer attends a ‘very white’ literary festival. After negotiating her way through a panel discussion with an interviewer who can’t pronounce seem to her name correctly, she waits at her empty book signing table where she spots a man she possibly knows. Time gallops ahead, or is it backwards, circling and zigzagging into the void.

In ‘A Girl Sitting On A Unicorn In the Middle of a Shopping Centre’ a child begins to understand her place in this shining hollow world-of-things, perched between choice and expectation, childhood and the limited prescriptions of womanhood. In ‘Washing Day’ the domestic ‘anomaly’ of a clothes-eating washing machine sparks a national crisis of bureaucracy and conspiracy. In all these stories, anything ordinary and inanimate threatens to become sprawlingly alive – or is it vice versa.

Astray – Emma Donoghue

Best known for her claustrophobic bestseller novel Room, Emma Donoghue’s far-ranging collection Astray enlists a gleanings from the historical record as a starting point. At the end of each story, there are references to these reported events, catapulting the reader into the often more startling realities lurking behind her fictions.

In the opening story, ‘Man and Boy’, we meet the keeper of Jumbo the famous elephant kept at Regent Parks Zoo in the 1880s. The complicated bond between man and beast is played out before Jumbo is shipped off to begin a doomed new part of his life on the other side of the Atlantic, touring with the infamous showman Barnum.

Set in New York in 1901, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is spoken in the voice of Minnie Hall. Her businessman father has just died and has been laid out across the hallway. She’s peeved at the flocks of newspapermen and reporters besieging the office, threatening to unmask another side to her father’s life.

In ‘What Remains’, two long-term partners in a nursing home, Queenie and Florence, face prejudices of age and ability, colliding with their sense of who they are and were, as they try to pursue their last wishes. All the stories in this collection hone in on largely forgotten historical transgressions, and the conflicts and surprises which ricochet down the years.

Short novels/novellas

It’s worth reading the classic novellas/short novels if you’re interested in this form. Franz Kafka’s 1915 Metamorphosis famously mixes the respectable ordinary and the supposedly shameful strange, the transformation of human to inhuman, and the hidden and the exposed.

There’s also Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s intense 36 page study of dissolving realities in The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892.

Here are a few more recent short novels.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

Set in 1990s England, Ghost Wall is told from the point of view of a teenage girl, Silvie, who reluctantly accompanies her parents on a two week archaeological reenactment dig in the countryside. This attempt at time-travelling involves eating gritty porridge, wearing itchy clothing, avoiding the locals, foraging for their own food, and a rising competition between who knows the most about history.

The book opens with a nightmarish depiction of an otherworldly event in an unknown time. Snapping to the present, we slowly learn about Silvie’s doubts, naivete, and knowledge as she navigates this new terrain, and the growing sense of unease as she realizes why she’s there. Running to only 150 pages, somehow Sarah Moss packs in the politics of British archaeological research, family power struggles, issues of distrust, delusion, parochialism, consent, obsession, and solidarity.

 The Fish Girl – Mirandi Riowe

The Fish Girl is an almost fable-like story of a young Indonesian woman’s removal from her tiny coastal village, to work in a house owned by a Dutch merchant. Indonesian words are peppered throughout, details of food, work, and daily life. These add texture and specificity, while asking the non-Indonesian reader to adjust to their own foreignness.

This taut and tense novella is a reframing of W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, which mentions a ‘Malay trollope’. Miriandi Riowe’s riposte puts her heart-torn, resourceful character at the centre of the world as she faces difficulties and loss, finds beauty and connections, and negotiates her role in a system stacked against her, where colonial hierarchy is enforced and maintained at all costs.

Mirandi Riowe’s latest book  Stone Sky, Gold Mountain is set in the Australian goldfields.

Weather – Jenny Offill

Hovering between short novel,and collection, Jenny Offill’s Weather is a poetic meditation on climate change – not so much on impending events – rather the seeping dread.

The protagonist is a librarian, dealing with her eclectic stream of borrowers and all their eccentricities, demands, and foibles. Each vignette swings from one thought or happening, such as delivering her ‘very small’ child Eli to his ‘very big’ school, or drinking too much on a rare night out. She’s also taken on a job answering questions about climate change on behalf of her jaded environmental activist friend, attracting the attention of denialists, preppers, and the generally overwhelmed.

The novel forms itself as a clever accretion of disparate ideas, massing into a visible whole – a bit like a cloud – as it details universal personal frailties, disappointments, jokes, bemusements, and self-effacing confessions. Jenny Offill’s first novel The Department of Speculation is also an accumulation of moments, dealing with the disintegration of the protagonist’s marriage, and the possible reassembling of those shards.

More to Come…

Who knows how long the lockdown will last. Or when some of us will get back to the keyboard, or the library, or the bookshop. I’ve gathered a stash of books, and will return to being transported by Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Mirror and The Light. But I’ll keep stopping along the way to savour a few new treasures including: Ellen van Neerven’s powerful new poetry collection Throat which follows their award-winning books Comfort Food and Heat and Light; also Laura Elvery’s second short story collection Ordinary Matter about Nobel-prize winners., a follow up to her acclaimed first collection Trick of the Light.

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Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.