Vox: Bel Woods

Posted on December 8, 2011 by in Verity La Forum

I think blogs remind us of a time when life was more connected. In some ways they’re a new translation of something that has little to do with writing, and more to do with society trying to remember how to communicate in conventional ways. You know, when you bumped into your neighbour at the letterbox and just chatted.

Or when you were read books chapter by chapter at school, the teacher explaining the context of the novel, as you gazed out the window and let it all soak in; when families discussed a news story at the breakfast table, or your parents gossiped, where names were rarely mentioned though everyone knew precisely who was being spoken about; or when your uncle took you out to the yard and gave you gardening tips as you tumbled the earth with your fingers.

Blogs are particularly empowering for writers. They can showcase their flash fiction, or poetry, long before their work hits the shelves. As a new writer, I think it’s more likely we’ll look back at all our postings and cringe.

It concerns me though, this new archaeology (if it is, in fact, a new archaeology). As I watched Pixar’s Wall-E with my son the other week, I started to think about where we are headed if we become linked through technology alone. What if we forget the old ways of communicating? Will this then be a world of internal monologues not wholly shared? Stories created from lives not lived? If so, then it won’t just be the book dwindling, but story itself.

I was discussing this with fellow writer, Les Zig, and he pointed out that for the blog to evolve to that point, where they’re created from lives not lived, it essentially becomes fiction anyhow. To quote him: “It’s actually bizarre if you think about it. Like the snake swallowing its own tail”.

Perhaps it will come down to effort. For many, the novel has always required too much work. It’s an effort to pick it up, it requires effort to read, and it’s an effort to discuss, more so than a simple blog post. Maybe we have only enough energy to keep a narrative if we cut off at the 300 word mark.

Despite this, I firmly believe the book will live on. The novel as a book especially. I’d also advise you not to believe everything you hear.

Everything is as it should be: Jessica Au’s Cargo

Posted on August 5, 2011 by in Verity La Reviews

CargoReview by Bel Woods

If Puberty Blues was one extreme of teenage beach culture, Cargo is another. It’s the loners; the kids who mature quietly at the fringes, drift, dip their toes into the social norms associated with those last teenage summers, but don’t necessarily embrace them. They carry with them trauma, dysfunction, and share indignities usually associated with adult life, and they wade in and around one another’s lives in a cinematic fashion, especially towards the latter end of the book, rarely intersecting, and maturing separately, despite their similarities.

Set during a summer in the 90s, Cargo (published by Picador) follows three reluctant characters: Frankie, Gillian and Jacob through that shift from teenager to young adult. With individual chapters devoted to the point of view of the character at hand, we hear the story of a small coastal town.

Through Gillian’s narrative, soaks a stain that you know will stay within the local folklore for years to come; through Jacob you see the ghost of a story pass and the boy who can hardly remember it; and through the lighter character of Frankie, you see that girl who grows as much from what she doesn’t experience, as from what she does.

Interestingly, this young adult novel has a strong literary feel. The language is in equal parts, sublime, sparse, and poetic. You read on for the moments of pin-point observation – the needle of the radio, the leftover warmth from Jacob’s brother’s hands on the wax block, the beehive glass on James’s house; you read on, similarly, for the language of these observations, like when Au has Gillian compare the water of her old home: ‘… a sluggish brown river that roped around town like a broken lasso’ to the water of her new home: ‘The first time she’d seen the ocean – the real thing – they’d come up over a rise and slipped onto the highway parallel to the water’. There are so many golden lines throughout the pages, the kind that make you nod and sigh and wish you’d written them yourself.

Jessica Au may be at the beginning of her career, but this book doesn’t read like a first novel. There’s a real sense of power in the voices and a true appreciation that less is more. And although there are subtle movements in the story, a big part of this book is driven by these voices.

The narrative gains shape through the characters and their families and the community that surrounds them, but the reader is never stifled by plot or the thematic intentions of the author. In fact, when you’re feeling the pull of the wind-down, you don’t want it to tie up or end. But it does.

In Au’s skillful hands, you leave the novel feeling comforted, that everything is as it should be, regardless of whether it is or not.

Cargo is a true gift to the young adult world.

Cargo
Jessica Au
Picador Australia
228 pages, $19.99

 

My Sheets Were Freshly Cleaned and Smelled of Lilac (Bel Woods)

Posted on July 26, 2010 by in Lies To Live By

She smiled that day, when I told her I was Yugoslavian, her bright lips an open suitcase – one of those soft slouchy ones with a saggy zipper – not really a suitcase at all, a bag. Her face was open and pale and her eyelids a deep salmon colour. She was, in personality, what they call ‘bubbly’ over here.

She was younger and I was older, and her nurse uniform was pants and a patterned shirt. This disappointed me a little, as I preferred the crisp white dresses of the past. I was tactless enough to say this out loud and she’d paused momentarily, removing her hand from my arm.

She’d worn a little rectangle tag around her neck and a pen on a chain, new school; a pinned analogue clock face to her breast, old school.

On the way to my building we discussed the suburb I lived in – in Sydney, Australia.

Australia.

The country I picked from the sound of its name alone; it wasn’t anything like my home.  The suburbs all seemed the same to me, but she assured me they all had individual sub-cultures. The term ‘sub-cultures’ was unfamiliar to me, so I said nothing as we walked in the sunshine.

I missed my home.

When she bounded up the stairs to my apartment, I watched her hips sway in the dim light and began to feel less burdened again – some things were the same everywhere.

‘7’, I called out to her, ‘looks like an L – 7 upside down.’

She shrugged and leaned against the wall, in that way teenagers do when they’re bored. She waited quietly as my door was opened, and we shuffled inside my brown-walled bed-sit. Her body was then flattened up against me – against my crutch. I held my breath unsure if my body would remember how.

‘Hmmm,’ she purred, moving away until she was standing with her back to me. ‘My jacket,’ she said after a few minutes.

I lifted her up and carried her to my bed – she flung her head back and laughed as clothes escaped her and legs wrapped easily around my hips; pillows fell to the floor.

I felt alive and free in this moment.

My sheets were freshly cleaned and smelled of lilac – I changed them often due to severe night sweats. My open shirts promote an easy personality, but this anxious perspiring would happen regularly.

Still now.

I woke with her beside me, and she sighed softly, her body whole and lifting while breathing out on my face. I rolled away and thought of my parents – my wife: her body, their bodies, in pieces; my heart tripping in my chest. Grief visits at the most inconvenient times.

My hand stretched back towards this woman in my bed and she held it against her softness. She climbed over me – light and ready for whatever the world would bring.

I choked softly under the weight of her body.

She talked: ‘why did you say you were Yugoslavian? I thought Yugoslavia was gone.’

‘Yugoslavia lives,’ I said, grasping her hand and pushing it to my chest, ‘here.’

She sat back a little.

‘What’s your name? She quizzed me, running short fingers through my greying hair and creeping kisses up the line of my neck.

‘Why do you want to know?’ I pretended to tease, pulling her away from me and getting up from the bed; discarding her in order for her to understand.

She was quiet then, like a scolded child, and put her clothes back on. I felt the heaviness return and put on my thongs, getting ready for the trip to the showers at the end of the hall.

‘I’ll walk myself out then, shall I?’

I barely heard her and stared at her face, motionless, emotionless. She gripped my arm hard.

‘I figured my name might mean something to you. When we met, you… I thought after, we’d be friends at least. I pulled away from her and she lifted up her tag – squarely, in front of her face. ‘I’m Diana, anyway.’ She then opened her arms and lifted her mouth to mine.

It was an awkward goodbye.

I wanted to say something to make her feel better, but instead I walked clutching my robe and toiletries in the opposite direction; she walked down the stairs. The insistent memories of my wife’s moaning returned, and each step took more effort than the last.

In the end, some minutes later, when my fingertips were on the cold steel of the doorknob, and my eyes were transfixed on the porcelain plaque wrought with yellow and green daisies spelling out an almost unreadable ‘bathroom’, I yelled back into the space, into the hall that met the stairs, my name:

‘Milo.’