It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon when I began this, with light filling my flat. I haven’t been able to sit at my desk, with the light, for months. I am tired and unwell again, but then, after a year in which I travelled overseas twice, edited and published a novel, and negotiated two failed relationships, I think some tiredness is justified. Soon I will head to Parental Unit’s for Xmas, and thence to the beach with P&T, whereupon I will sleep and swim and sleep some more. And drink Pimms with strawberries and mangoes, and lie by the pool and read.
Before I leave, I need to head to the library to return my overdue books, one of which is Jennifer Mills’ ‘Gone’. I first heard of Mills on Twitter, when her book of short stories, ‘The Rest is Weight’, came out. The cover was so good that I picked the book up from Avid Reader and began reading.
I don’t generally gravitate towards volumes of short stories, preferring to read them in literary journals or embedded among other works. I discovered this on reading Alice Munro in my first English Christmas at the house of friends in Dorset, where I couldn’t get warm unless I was sitting by the fire with a doona and two blankets piled over me. Munro is such a sophisticated and skilful writer that I found each time she drew me into a story, I became so attached to the characters that there was a little heartbreak every time the story ended.
My experience with Mills’ stories was similar, although I didn’t have quite the same rapport with her that I had with Munro. It may have been the cadence of the stories’ endings, for they often concluded the same way, with an abstraction that became frustrating after a while. Or it may have been that the tone, although her characters varied widely and the writing that described them was highly polished, didn’t alter than much. This set me to wondering, and worrying, about my own style. It seems that at some point a writer becomes fixed in the way they write, and I wonder if this can be averted. While I’m changing genres for my next novel, and moving into a kind of magic realism, I’m conscious that the very descriptive way in which I write might be more difficult to change. It’s compelled me to try and start writing short stories that are different to those I’ve been doing, to see if I can shake myself up a bit.
All this aside, there were some absolute gems in Mills’ volume, including ‘The Air You Need’, about a mother taking care of her son who immerses himself in water every night, ‘saving for a pool of their own, but after the psychiatrists’ bills, the medication, the plastic, the seals, the oxygen, twenty years of it, there is very little left to live on’ (180). It was peculiar and wonderful, particularly when my discovery of the narrator caused me to go back and read the story again.
Halfway through the collection, I borrowed ‘Gone’, Mills’ second novel, for which she was shortlisted for a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award this year. It follows Frank, a young man just out of prison, across the continent to his old home near Halls Creek, haunted by the memory of his feral brother Jake and the crime that landed Frank in prison. The plot is propelled by Frank’s movements and the people that he meets who, like those in Mills’ short stories, are often disenfranchised, hovering on the fringes of society. However, although there were some troubling sorts, they never transformed into anything really menacing, the result of which was a subdued plot, almost as flat as the landscape that Frank crossed. Yet the tone was gritty and bleak, and I enjoyed that, as I did lines such as ‘In this light, anything delicate is quickly broken up’ (214). The last few chapters, in which the mystery of Frank’s relationship with Jake unfolded, were the most chilling and absorbing, and I found myself wishing for this intensity throughout the rest of the work.
On the whole though, I liked Mills’ writing. It seemed that there was a leap in quality from the second novel to her short stories, but many of these were written either before or at the same time, so perhaps it was that she works better in a shorter form. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
These two reviews are part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, a wonderful initiative set up by Elizabeth Lheude to counter the gender imbalance in reviewing books. In early January I’ll be posting a round-up of reviews covered in 2012, looking specifically at diversity. In the meantime, if you have a moment, it would also be wonderful if you could fill in this survey on reading (you don’t have to be part of the challenge to fill it in): http://australianwomenwriters.com/2012/12/03/what-impact-has-aww-had-in-2012/