Reviewed by Sue Bond
Shibboleth & Other Stories
edited by Laurie Steed
Margaret River Press
ISBN: 9780994316783, 2016, 286pp; $AU27
An outstanding collection of short stories makes up this book of the Margaret River Short Story Competition for 2016. It is sponsored by Margaret River Press, who believe the ‘short story genre is greatly undervalued’, according to their website. The competition has been run since 2011, producing five published collections so far, with the 2017 competition having just recently closed for submissions.
The title story, ‘Shibboleth’, which won the first prize, is one of those pieces that reveals more with repeated readings. A man and a woman meet up again in London after many years and go to the Tate Gallery, and he shows her a work called Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo, ‘a vast fracture ripping through the concrete of the Turbine floor’ (13). Jo Riccioni has given the reader clues to the relationship between these two people, which are scattered throughout the story: ‘It’s too late for lunch, too early for a drink, though God knows she wants one’ (2) and ‘His smile manages to gut and debone her, even after all this time’ (3). It’s a masterfully told story, one that lingers on in the mind, precisely because of what is not said but hinted at between the lines.
And many others reach this level of quality. There are only two I have reservations about, mainly because I feel they both need more space to develop their complex characters and plots, but they are interesting and imaginative despite this. The themes range through dementia, loss, connection, difference, death, hope, resilience, relationship conundrums; and there is only the very occasional cliché to stumble over as a reader.
One of the outstanding stories is Julie Kearney’s ‘Fork in the Path’, which begins by immersing the reader straight into the heart of things: ‘The first thing he notices when he emerges from the gloom of the forest is some kid over by the drinking fountain’. This boy becomes the focus of the protagonist’s double quest in a harrowing tale involving not only the ‘saving’ of the boy but also redemption of the main character through proving something to himself. A fawn features in a beautifully placed metaphorical aside. It is harshly realistic, well written, with not a word out of place.
‘Acrobat’ by Laura Elvery has a perfect arc, beginning with the central character’s visit to her specialist for a post-operative assessment, leading her to wonder how she will afford twelve months’ worth of physiotherapy after all she had spent on the surgery. It is made clear that she and her partner are short of money, and that she is short with him for not pulling his weight. Life is hard and too expensive for children. The acrobat is a small girl, egged on by her mother to perform a dangerous tightrope act for the public. This is delicately interposed with the protagonist’s own tightrope act to survive, ending in injury, but not, perhaps, to the little girl. This story itself is an example of exquisite balance.
Wes Lee’s ‘Thirsty’ is a heartbreaker: a man continuing to run a zoo because he doesn’t want to disappoint people, so when the animals die, he replaces them with fake ones. He is a good man, riven by pain:
It has to cost in some way. There has to be that moment where the hand clutches the heart, and there are no words because there is no breath. There has to be that jolt: only then is it real. That’s why pain is so ingrained, and joy slips easily away. Because joy doesn’t cost. We are formed by painful things, Colin thought—a kind of Groundhog Day. (94)
‘The Sea Also Waits’ by Emily Paull sees a boy go out with his mother for a free diving session, but she ‘disappeared into the ocean’ (138) and the story is a meditation by him on his mother and her free spirit and love of the water. Many stories are of loss, like ‘Photographs of the Missing’ by Michelle Wright and ‘A House’ by Kate Glenister. But both of these tug at the reader’s insides, leave enough unsaid, enough mystery, to go on wondering about their characters for a long time afterwards.
Chloe Wilson’s ‘The Drydown’ is also about loss, but about remembering and regaining as well. The character of Andrew, the protagonist’s boyfriend, is described by her sister as dressing like ‘the kind of man who hangs around primary schools’ (232); this same sister is not supportive of her taking anti-depressants because she describes her behaviour as ‘personality’ not illness. I could tell she was going to be a force in this story, and she is, bringing ‘perfume’ back into her sister’s life.
The last story in this collection is ‘Theo’ by Phil Sparrow and won the Southwest Prize. The central character visits his father and uncle in the nursing home, and encounters a confused resident trying to get out: ‘I find myself forming a plan to set all the old people free, and delight in the idea of them spreading out through the suburbs accosting the locals, tearing their neat shirts, pulling up their flowerbeds. They who thought they were safe’ (274). It’s a quiet tale, with humour, pathos and life’s disappointments, but also a sense of inevitable pressing on.
If this is an example of the short story writing occurring in Australia then we are in, not safe hands, but imaginative and well crafted ones that can and will take us everywhere. Congratulations to all of the writers, to Laurie Steed for his editing of the collection, and to Margaret River Press for fine work.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane.