Mandy Beaumont’s Wild Fearless Chests comes blazing forward wielding its weapons of words to illuminate the monstrous truths of the dreadful veins of violence that snake through human lives. Much of that violence is against women.
The collection is a reverberating scream for recognition of the weak, of the dispossessed, for a way of escape from the trauma of self-hatred.
The strangely ambiguous, savage, bloody image of a crumpled hibiscus on the cover lingers, leading readers into a haunting, abject fantasy world where dreams of starlight, roses and sweet perfumes play against anguished realities of sewage, suicide and every kind of sexual brutality. The prose is powerfully rhythmic, disjointed, poetic and passionate, referencing such literary beacons as Hemingway, Frame, Kafka, Bukowski with a determined belief in the power of words, a possible escape from despair. Images tumble swiftly like hallucination, building across the whole collection, as one narrative bleeds into another.
The book is dedicated to the author’s Aunty Marg, and is for ‘‘all the women misplaced’’. At the heart is Bright Light and All Brilliance, inspired by the life of Marg. The narrator seeks Marg, after her suicide, in the clouds, listens to her story, which is ‘‘the most tragic thing I have ever heard’’.
Throughout the collection runs the endlessly complicated and tragic figure of the mother, ‘‘the most beautiful thing I have ever seen’’. Generally, the characters are nameless and non-specific, so each ‘‘mother’’ stands for all. In a sense, each one of them hangs herself. The loss of the mother is ‘‘the greatest loss’’. Consider the mother who puts her pregnant teenage daughter in the bath and administers a futile ‘‘pale blue knitting needle’’.
As the whole bruised fabric of this collection is woven, the title becomes a most fierce and tragic emblem of doomed hope. A tenebrous fear inhabits every story, light is rare and elusive, a chimera in this world where fathers murder mothers, a world of rotting squalor, poverty, rape, abortion, humiliation, death.
Mark O’Flynn’s Dental Tourism offers a change of mood, in a more traditional form. ‘‘Though there are torturers in the world, there are also musicians’’ appears as the epigraph. The stand-alone stories, ending with a comment on the ‘‘cruelty and craziness’’ of the world, swing confidently between a certain amount of torture and a measure of music, seasoned with some levity and sharp-eyed satire.
The innocent Australian abroad, seeking, as his ‘‘single purpose’’ a lifetime’s experience of the pyramids, is systematically duped, robbed, by the narrator-guide. Readers will love the guide, but they will probably have an even sweeter affection for the tourist in the end.
That’s something this writer does consistently – he takes a narrator, such as the teenage girl forced to take a flight over Antarctica, makes you love her and hate her, while at the same time he has you sympathising for her unappealing geriatric companion on the flight. It’s sadness, humour, dismay, horror all wrapped up in one neat parcel.
The title story whisks you off to Thailand for a satirical bit of cheap dentistry. Such trips are, according to accounts, often successful. Not this one. There’s an appalling and idiotic dentist in Australia, while in Thailand the whole thing goes – guess what – horribly wrong in ways you could not have imagined.
Staying with teeth for the moment, in Tooth for a Tooth a group of women book-clubbers reveal their own witchy darkness as they wait for one of their number to rejoin them after her prison sentence for infanticide. Tonight they will discuss the latest Booker winner, will dine on ‘‘Asian infused swordfish with greens’’. Having destroyed the awaited character with their gossip, they prepare to ‘‘greet’’ her with their ‘‘brightest, happy masks’’.
In The Eagle two brothers, who might have come from a fairy tale called Two Stupids, attempt to rescue an eagle caught in a rabbit trap. Yes, they wrap the eagle plus trap (is this even possible?) in a blanket and put it in the car alongside the urn containing their other brother’s ashes. Well, the other brother was the lucky one, really. The collection, taking a broad sweep across time and place, with a sly sideways glance, has the human condition in its sights.
The 18 separate gripping narratives of A Couple of Things Before the End could be seen as 18 stimulating ways to construct a story.
Snapshot, memoir, diary, monologue, letter, and more. Nicely coincidental links going back to the collections already discussed are: ‘‘the icing on the cake’’ and the ‘‘tartan rug’’. (I feel I should maybe do a search for the tartan rug in Australian literature.)
From 1930 to some time in an ominous near future, the stories propel readers (gasping, laughing, weeping, wondering) into the minds, hearts, lives of the characters in a brilliant, confident, versatile range of styles and voices. The writer has been afforded the pleasing liberty to use language that is, in defiance of the word police, un-PC. A story called The Poofter Bus? And – a woman who is ‘‘really fat’’ has a son who is ‘‘a bit of a fatty’’. She feeds him and his friends up, eventually eating her son.
Readers move from a formal letter a junior barrister writes to his experienced barrister father, seeking advice for a murder case involving a ‘‘half-caste’’ on Palm Island in 1930, to a final futuristic minimalist weirdness in the blunt diary of life in the bunker of a bleak tomorrow.
Missy is the penultimate story, in emails, in a near future time of floods, fires, tempests, droughts. Missy is exquisitely constructed, revealing the growing frantic despair of the writer, Genevieve, an affluent resident of the Melbourne suburb of Malvern.
She wishes to relocate her family to a fancy refuge facility, Highfern, near Macedon to the north. Away from the coast, you understand. (Portsea is underwater.) Although she sometimes speaks to a secretary at Highfern, it takes the whole four months for the manager at Highfern to respond by email. It’s always a terrifying pleasure to revel in language, character and events with Sean O’Beirne.
Epiphany is a story in Dominic Carew’s No Neat Endings. It swiftly and elegantly exposes the flaws in the thinking of the ultimate consumer, and it has, I must say, a very nice neat, and sadly ironic ending. Being a story about ‘‘too much stuff’’, it will resonate forcefully with just about everybody. (It makes me want to tell the author about my own garage.)
Dysfunctional characters in a mostly heedless world stumble and worry their way through bars, websites, families, relationships, jobs.
And although the ending of the final story could be construed as un-neat, it is terribly sad, and skilfully takes the reader back into the story, sounding a kind of poignant hope.
There’s a lot here about money and alcohol and blokes – ‘‘I worked with this guy, Al Grisby’’, ‘‘I wasn’t that kind of guy’’. A father who expresses his rage by eating peas ‘‘one by one’’ in silence. There is a terrible undertone of melancholy and menace running through the collection. The lighting in the cafe bathroom makes the male narrator ‘‘look like something hung in a cool room’’. What’s more, the prawns are deadly, and the tea is going to kill you too. Yet folded into almost every story is the touching melody of sweetness playing somewhere, a longing, a hope for maybe a happy ending of some kind.
In response to my second question (above), I love a collection, and today I have these books to thank for some great 2020 reading, two collections in mostly conventional prose, two in astonishingly provocative new patterns.
Carmel Bird’s most recent novel, Field of Poppies, is published by Transit Lounge.