A review of Karen Sedaitis’ Soul Dark Soil

Humus-rich Food for the Soul: Karen Sedaitis’ Soul Dark Soil

 Sedaitis’ work gets under the reader’s skin; goes deeper than the details of her stories, and even when she is describing something ugly, like dismemberment, rot, abduction, physical, or emotional destruction, there is a kind of detached beauty in the writing, coming from something more eternal than the pain.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Soul Dark Soil is a painful, confronting book. Many of the stories follow the contours of nightmares, those things we fear most. Snakebite; a lost child; car crash; insanity; a disabled child; children who are autistic, awkward, irritating; seriously bad parenting; selfish, sensual dreams of escape from parenthood; the ends of relationships, physical decay, disillusion, and everywhere death, misunderstanding, and destruction. The landscape is a domestic, and primarily feminine one – the kitchen, the nursery, shopping, the schoolyard, the garden, and the plot almost always involves love in one form or another, along with loss, desire, failure, or redemption. Sedaitis’ work gets under the reader’s skin; goes deeper than the details of her stories, and even when she is describing something ugly, like dismemberment, rot, abduction, physical, or emotional destruction, there is a kind of detached beauty in the writing, coming from something more eternal than the pain.

The characters are people we know well. They are ordinary men and women, watching their lives metamorphous, albeit temporarily, from banal to transcendent; from trivial to tremendous, and very likely, back to trivial again. In “Riding Along Singing”, Mick is a grubby musician whose epiphany comes while sitting on a bus with his son, who he hasn’t seen for two years. As the narrative voice moves delicately between father and son, playing their discontinuity in thought against that of the disapproving women on the bus, the reader is treated to the combined complexity of Mick’s joy at his daydream image of teaching his son to play guitar, his son’s dreams of television heroism, and the reality of real life against these scenerios. The effect is powerful, even sadly beautiful, layering the complexity of human emotions; our aspirations and pettinesses; dreams that will likely never be realised; the difficulty of communication, and the momentary peaks in these fragile, and lost lives.

A similar kind of transformation takes place in “Soul Dark Soil”, where the protagonist moves from incessant activity: “swinging like a metronome from one distraction to the next in an effort to keep herself in perpetual motion”, to a deep Buddhist inner calm. The complexity comes from the dizziness of her lethargy which prefigures her calm end, and the worry of those around her as she appears thin, shabby and pale. Her ending in the public wards, not happy, not anything, in a kind of living death: “She is the boulder in the moving river, life streaming around her immovable bulk.” It is hard for the reader to know whether this is a positive or negative ending – the ultimate aim of all of us – that deep inner peace we all seek, or the ultimate horror. It is this tension once again, between horror and wonder, that makes this otherwise simple story great.

In “Respite”, Marg agrees to help a tired mother cope with her daughter Ruby, by offering respite, or care, one day a week. Ruby’s shocking act creates a chain of associations in the reader, linking care and love with death and rejection. It is a chilling and powerful story which takes the careful, thoughtful details of Marg’s life, the rich yellow of the homemade pumpkin scones, fancy teas and china, flowers and polished furniture, and imposes the twitchy, fearful world of Ruby’s, hinting at her own inner world, and the damage, mingled with her childlike beauty, lateral thinking, and how she is alive to the moment. This mingling of Ruby’s capability for evil, coupled with her beauty and innocence is very powerful. The details are familiar ones – the tea, the food, the chicken run, the tiredness of parenting, transformed into something surreal, horrific, and utterly believable.

“Laugh, Kookabura” takes us through the most familiar of settings – our own backyard. A simple walk to the water tank for the source of a bad taste reveals a brown snake, which bites. This is the plot. It couldn’t be more basic, but the language is extraordinary, beautiful, as the protagonist runs away from the snake, in spite of knowing not to run: “it didn’t matter a damn, had melted down into unrecognisable gibberish.” The gorgeous transformation in the end, death in the face of a bloated infection causing kookabura is what makes this story shine: “She looked up to the light and saw a shadow circling up there, its wings wide and black, filling her vision in that cool wet world, perched there, waiting to swoop, and she pictured her babies all tucked up, their faces wide and pink, before the wings spread wider and wider and encompasses her world, until there was nothing.” Sedaitis avoids any hint at purple prose, despite the coolness of the water, or lush overgrown environment, and lets the strong image of the woman “cavorting in a wild and uninhibited hoe-down” work on the reader, creating impressions that stay with the reader long after the book is put down.

Soul Dark Soil is filled with stories like these, all taking on the transformative, power and immediacy of poetry. The language is always beautiful, broody, and immersed in the natural and psychological world. The weaker pieces are those which take a male narrative voice. “Self Portrait”, with its tortured gay artist, lacks the fear and depth of the female narrators. Similarly, the male voice in “Blah” lacks the authority and authenticity of some of the other pieces, although his transformation from callous youth, to hopeful adult in the face of his girlfriend’s pregnancy still makes for an interesting twist. The first part of “Flutter” titled “The end” stands on its own as a superb piece of flash fiction, especially as Jewel dies: “So that when she died, she died complete and at the end, as in the beginning, she was taut and wet and the bright light beckoned.” The story which follows it is a little bit lengthy and convoluted, and after such a powerful beginning feels like an afterthought. These are minor points however, in a considerable collection of stories from a new author. Sedaitis’ strength is in the utterly feminine, but not necessarily feminist, cast of her work. Perhaps a man wouldn’t find these stories so intense or wonderful. As a woman reader, I found myself understanding and sympathising with every word; feeling the duality of the forces acting on these characters, and sinking with them into their painful interior, or following them through their metamorphosis. Like the work of Toni Morrison, there is something very physical and female about the way Sedaitis writes, her clean, tight prose pulling the reader deeper into the real meaning of our lives – taking emotion to its conclusion. There are flashes of black humour, such as the wild mushroom risotto in the duffle bag in “Fungi”, or even in the bleak dreams of “Contractual Obligations” clitoris as profiterole: “it was more or less useless to me, as things stood”. There are modern touches, like the Sydney food markets, or the Internet romance, but the big themes in these stories are timeless; love, death, birth, and those moments in our day to day lives when we become something bigger than ourselves: “tantelised forward by brief moments of union, held in thrall by the promise of fruit”. Sedaitis has made a powerful debut. I think we can expect to hear more from this exceptional new author.

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