Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Michael de Valle
ISBN 978 1 74027 381 7, 108pp, $20.00
There’s a quiet persistence in Michael de Valle’s work. It cuts across the ordinary lives it portrays and moves softly beneath appearances to something more lingering. His latest short story collection, Going Home has 14 stories, each unrelated in terms of character and plot, but all with the same undercurrent of impending death and its impact on life. The tension between life and death–both in a positive and negative sense is one which pervades the book and provides a thread that holds the stories together. Each of the stories pivots on a moment in time, with the reader adding perspective and space. Though death is always present in one way or another, not all the stories are about death specifically – some are about a moment of awakening, stimulated by a deathlike loss – the permanent disappearance of someone. The opening piece, “The red man” is an unusual character study in which nothing happens externally. This very short story takes place in the mind of one rather unsympathetic person who is fantasising about himself after watching a film. The whole notion of dreaming a “new life” while watching the “red man” at the traffic lights seems surreal, and yet strangely familiar. Perhaps its that relationship between the halt of the light and the attempt to move forward that makes the futility of the man’s situation clear.
The next story “The Truth About Giants” is softer. Rudy is a boyfriend who drops into the life of a child and then disappears one day. It’s a child’s perspective of a situation which is common—there would be few readers in our modern world who couldn’t relate to the child’s emotions or sense of betrayal in this piece. The pathos and sense of loss is made greater by the simplicity and clarity of de Valle’s language:
She missed him, missed the stories and the swings, missed being so close to the sun. She wondered why he’d done it, why he’d made them love him, then gone away. It was then that she knew the truth about giants, that he really had come to hurt them. (10)
In “The Absence of Matter” the transition is from death to life. The protagonist is a woman hurt by an affair with an older teacher. She picks up a young man at a bar, and in the warmth of his missing body the morning after, she feels herself wakening: “The known and the unknown revolve around the moment. Beyond theory there’s life and what matters is she feels herself moving again, that its her own life she’s testing; that the space she’s held open is finally closing. (17)
In other stories the catalyst for change is something completely random and unrelated. An ambulance visits a house in the neighbourhood, and in the sense of unknowing and loss, the woman comes to realise an emptiness in her own life in “Two Doors Up and Across the Street”. In “The real thing” longing is mirrored by emptiness as a girl faces an abortion. de Valle is very effective at using pause and space to convey a great deal of meaning. He never strains in his delicate prose, nor does he lead the reader. Instead he lets the image of a swinging skeleton stay with the reader as it stays with his character – death again reminding us of how tenuous each moment is, and how easy it is to destroy life. In another story a man pretends to shoot a noisy teenager outside his window – a pretend shotgun mingling with his hatred until his son arrives, reminding him of the value of life. In “Nine Streets” a woman hears that one of her colleagues killed his wife and in that moment her and her husband suddenly realise how tenuous their own marriage and relationship is. In other stories a woman struggles to deal with the overwhelming poverty of the world in the face of her impending childbirth.
But it is when de Valle brings death itself directly into the story that his prose really shines. The complex relationship between life and death are the centre of action in “Two slices of blue”, a story about a child who is given back his eyesight from a donor’s corneas. The tightness of the narrative is superbly handled as de Valle moves back and forth between the moment of death/damage, a wife’s realisation that she’s lost her husband, and a parent’s experience of their child’s accident and subsequent operation. This is possibly the best story of the book, achieving an astonishing degree of power and depth in less than 11 pages. The story is rich with detail as de Valle describes the motion of the corneas from Harry’s eyes to young Finn in the hospital. But it is the narrative complexity that makes this piece work so well. Harry went to see the ocean, and he does as Finn opens his eyes – the transition from life to death and back to life again:
There were colours, but they were more intense than he’d ever seen. The green of what might be the nature strip, the grey that might be the road. Rainbow-coloured shapes passed that he guessed to be cars. There were other shapes and shadows that he couldn’t make out. In the distance there was a continuous line that he recognised as the horizon.
What he knew was blue, the blue of the sky, the blue of the ocean. (95)
Other stories like “The housewife of the year” and the final title story of the book “Going Home” also hover at that point between life and death. In the excitement of remission, a woman applies for “Foodland Housewife of the Year” competition. The story is written in the first person narrative of her young son, whose slightly blurry perspective of his mother’s Cancer is superimposed on his interest in a Lionel Rose’s boxing match. The final story is an allegory in which Death makes a mistake and tells Danny Pilgrim that he two and a half more days to life. It, of course, changes the Danny lives those days, but even when he’s told that it was a mistake, Danny realises, along with the reader, that death is always with us, always impending – the time is always getting closer. Going Home is a superb collection of stories by a writer at the top of his form. Michael de Valle’s work may be understated but it is no less powerful for its subtlety.