Reviewed by Beatriz Copello
Stories from Bondi
by Libby Sommer
ISBN: 9781760417901, Paperback, Sept 2019
Stories from Bondi is a collection of short stories by Libby Sommer. Libby Sommer is the award-winning Australian author of My Year with Sammy (2015), The Crystal Ballroom (2017) and The Usual Story (2018) and is a regular contributor of stories and poems to Quadrant Magazine.
The stories contained in this book are varied in tone, mood and themes and they go from the very light and funny to sombre and sad, and from the innocent to the complex. Most of the stories are set in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and for the inhabitants of this city it is fun to recognise familiar places and people from foreign places will learn about the beauty of Sydney.
Australian humour is sprinkled over the pages as well as truly Australian expressions, typical social comments and comments about the style of clothing the characters wear. Some authors describe characters’ clothes in a way that is pedantic. This is not the case with Sommer, the way this author dresses her characters emphasize aspects of their personality.
Various stories are about Anny, a well-defined character who the reader gets to know through her many and varied experiences. Through Anny’s point of view the reader encounters reflections about modern women, their issues, concerns and sexual mores.
In Stories From Bondi the sea is ever present, as well as the seagulls … seagulls flapping wings, seagulls walking on sand or seaweed, seagulls flying … seagulls who are witnesses of Anny’s life.
Strong women’s issues are covered in some of the stories, but also issues that many women readers would identify as their own, issues such as body image, for example in “After The Rain” where Anny expresses concerns about her figure, the author writes:
Although there are fans on the ceiling, it’s very hot in the restaurant. Anny wants to take off her cardigan but she doesn’t want to expose her upper arms that is, that are less than perfect even though she does weights and other things at the gym.
She wears a jacket or a cardigan always now to draw the eyes and attention away from that part of her body that is growing larger at a more rapid rate than the rest of her, which is causing her much alarm.
Sommer, with her imaginative mind, take us to places where many women on their own would not dare to go, like lonely overseas trips or to Sex Clubs. Yes, Anny visits a sex club in the story titled “Around Midnight”, story which is packed with the unexpected and with humour. Although, I enjoyed reading this story I would have loved for it to have stronger and more explicit sex scenes. Humour is also found in other stories like in “It’s Not Easy Being On Holidays”, she writes:
Anny said, On New Year’s Eve I ran my hand up the inside of a man’s trousers from the ankles up and discovered he wasn’t wearing any underwear either.
You discover a little something?
A big something, she said.
They both laughed.
In the story mentioned above there are also a few really funny passages full of innocence, one of these is when Anny phones her son to tell him about her holidays, Sommer writes:
And Pamela and Annabel all over each other in front of me. I can’t stand it.
Would it worry you so much if they were straight?
I can’t stand anyone being passionate in front of me — straight or gay. It makes me jealous. It’s inconsiderate of them.
Well, what did you expect going on holidays with two gays, two lesbians, a bisexual and a dog?
Sommer has the ability to create believable characters and place them in real life situations, whether these situations are arranged or occur by chance. The ‘unusual’ sometimes is found in this writer’s narrative, like when she describes different types of Glutei Maximi, for those unacquainted with Latin this mean simply ‘bums’. Sommer is a good observer and as such gives us good descriptions of ‘bums’, the character Anny comments:
Gradually the men on the beach sauntered towards the boat with money clasped in their bare hands. They lined up one behind the other as they waited their turn, assorted body shapes and colours. Tight firm bums, droopy wrinkly bums. Some with tell-tale underwear marks and others browned all over.
Slices of life are brought to the reader with cinematic qualities: sceneries, the characters, the situations, all can be seen in the mind’s eye like in a movie. The following is a small example:
Max leant back on his elbows nibbling on a bunch of grapes. He knocked the bottle of red wine beside him. The bright red liquid seeped into the white sand.
A fly buzzed around the apples.
A trail of ants marched towards the bread.
The Brie softened in the sun.
The above paragraph is the ending of one of the stories, a simple ending that says so much.
In the collection there is one very sad story of abuse and growing up too quickly and not knowing how to stop abusers who prey on innocent girls. There are also issues experienced by the characters which are very common to women one of this is the need to feel safe, the story “The Backpack” has that need very clearly expressed by the character:
I knew my children would be pleased I had a base. I didn’t want them to worry. It was the thing I wanted the most secretly, studying maps, absorbing travel books. To be safe, a desire whispered to the moon that moved behind my shoulder at night. If you guide me to a safe haven, I promise to be happy. And the moon listened. I did my best.
How many women would identify with this? Many it is my guess. All the main characters in Stories From Bondi are women, mainly writers who are portrayed as intelligent, inquisitive, reflective and observant who experience an array of emotions, men would find the stories fascinating and would learn about what goes in women’s heads.
Bondi is not the only setting mentioned in the book, other Australian cities and small towns are the background of some the stories, places like Perth, Cairns, Wee Wa, Brindabella as well as European cities.
Sometimes the author transitions from omniscient narrator to first person narrator, this works in most of the stories but in some small sections this does not happen. This minor issue does not demerit the stories at all.
There is one experimental story in the collection: “Around The World In Fifty Steps” where the author writes sentences and short paragraphs and numbers them from 1 to 50. Some of the sentences are dialogues, others propositions, information about the character and suggestions. The result is positive, the reader gets to know the character and what is going on in her life.
Some of the stories mirror women’s fantasy about escaping the routine, pain, loneliness, disappointment and sorrows as well as those close relationships that can be so complicated such as between mother and daughter. Also the reader will find sad possible romances that never get anywhere like in her previous novel The Usual Story.
Stories from Bondi is a book well written, with an interesting narrative and with characters true to life. Again Sommer brings to light another book in which the reader can submerge themselves into place and characters. Highly recommended.
About the Reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, she writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish). Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications. She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.