Reviewed by Leila Lois
If You’re Happy
by Fiona Robertson
University of Queensland Press
ISBN 9780702263460, Feb 2022, Paperback, 288 pages
‘… and you know it, clap your hands’. It is one of the most famous rhymes we learn in childhood, yet the desire for true happiness pervades many of our lives. Sometimes joy finds us at the most unexpected turns, & sometimes evades us equally unexpectedly. This short story collection by doctor/ writer Fiona Robertson, lures us into intimate scenarios where joy and its adversary– fear– are coterminous. From a lovelorn housewife caught in a literal storm and a lonely man in a housing estate, Robertson’s characters drip in pathos and multidimensionality within the tight confines of each story, leaving readers saying a reticent farewell, wondering after the characters, ambivalent about their predicaments. The irresolute beauty of Robertson’s prose is poetic and startling, reminiscent of poets Mary Oliver and Anne Carson— Mary Oliver for her ability to go from attentive description to huge philosophical themes and Anne Carson for her exploration of human error and the important lessons we stand to learn. Just as with life, we may not know what the lesson is immediately, but our imaginations are left swirling in the aftermath of each scenario with the possibilities therein:
And its emotions.
On the brink of error is a condition of fear
In the midst of error is a state of folly and defeat.
Realizing you’ve made an error brings shame and remorse
Or does it?
~ Anne Carson, Essay on What I Think About Most
One story that stands out in particular is the titular piece, ‘If You’re Happy’. This story follows the discovery of an abandoned baby by a lonely man in (we presume by the dialect) a Scottish housing estate. The quandary he sleepwalks into, whether to hand over the abandoned infant (to whom he has formed attachment to) to the police or to keep it is striking, and causes readers to consider the qualities of selflessness and of selfishness, and how the two can be so proximate. In another story, a woman is on her final straw with her husband, ready to leave to start a new life after much deliberation, but is literally suspended by a powerful storm. We are left considering how, in the eye of the storm, we may or may not see more clearly, how turns in departure can change our futures in the instant.
What is most notable about Robertson’s collection is a dedication to presence in each of the stories, to tell the truth, unflinchingly and without fear. A radical acceptance of human error and even celebration of this is palpable. I was left with the infamous saying, by Alexander Pope:
To err is human, to forgive is divine. Robertson ingratiates us with the humility of the characters in each story and builds a world in which their completeness, flaws and all, are permissible and relatable, inviting readers to forgive themselves for their own aberrations. Following the reckoning of the past two years, where many of us have faced interiority and with that soul-searching, this collection is a beautiful homage to the complexity of the human experience and a reminder that we all have unique circumstances but are united by our cognate desires for love and belonging.
About the reviewer: Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage who has lived most of her life in Aotearoa. In her poems, Leila explores a personal sense of origin that, like the ocean, binds several landscapes and times, coming back to the idea that a timeless, boundless love pervades. Her publishing history includes Southerly Journal, Djed Press, NoD Literary Journal, Honey Lit Journal, Mayhem Journal, Lite Lit One, Bent Street Journal and Delving into Dance. Find out more at: https://dialogicaldance.wordpress.com or at Twitter: leilaboos