Review by Kathryn Hummel
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader
A land as vast as Australia is well-suited to capturing through snapshots, for viewing separately or stitched together in a panorama. In many ways the snapshots’ literary equivalent, works of Australian short fiction, are created regularly and convincingly: idiosyncratic of frame but requiring no great effort to locate them in the landscape from which they derive. Recent collections, Habits of Silence by Stephanie Buckle and So Much Smoke by Félix Calvino, have been put together with a similar assuredness and piercing eye for capture, particularly concerning narratives marginal to the mainstream.
An overwhelming weight could lie upon the whole mechanism of speech,
from the thoughts of what you would say, which one by one are
relentlessly rejected; to the courage to speak them, which is consumed by
the bile swilling in your stomach; to the cringing, self-defeating apathy of
the tongue that would have to form the words. Silence is safe. Silence
commits to nothing.
Far easier to be silent than to speak.
(‘The Silence’ p64)
Throughout Habits of Silence, Stephanie Buckle shows skill in examining the absence of noise from various angles, as if it were a clear rather than cloudy proposition. In ‘Material Remains’, silence becomes a Millennial tragedy, observed as texting and social media browsing and distilled as isolation, a lack of intimacy and trust between a grieving teenager and his mother: ‘I’m sorry I’m upsetting her but she’ll get over it, like she’s got over Scott. I can’t deal with her. I can’t help her. I just want to be left alone’ (p33).
Buckle’s tone, bending through various characters and their narratives, is sharply contemporary and as bleakly recognisable as any suburban backyard. ‘Lillian and Meredith’ charts the romantic fascination Lillian, in residence at an aged care community, develops for newcomer Meredith. Their separation isn’t as surprising as sadly inevitable, initiated by carers and their institutional discourse: ‘Anyway, this is just the icing on the cake. She’s very inappropriate and disinhibited around Meredith, it’s a really unhealthy relationship and it’s upsetting the other residents’.(p15) Under the cover of silence, Buckle articulates the act of feeling as primary and the consequences of reality as secondary, although the stories she tells are far from fantasy. Frequently addressing the politics, economics and ethics of aged and mental health care facilities and the truncated emotional and erotic experiences of their residents, Buckle erects a black mirror to reflect the socio-political climate of their composition. Her writing evokes elements of Sonya Hartnett’s work, without the gothic tones: even with occasional lapses into self-consciousness, Buckle’s exploration is very real and just as frightening. In ‘Us and Them’, a mental health facility doesn’t have the resources for intensive counselling required by a resident; in ‘Frederick’, the need for psychiatric attention does not come from patient to carer but from one carer to another.
With such adherence to reality beyond the page, Buckle’s careful language often drops below pared-down. In some stories, as in ‘The Silence’, which dwells on the relationship between two elderly brothers, the understatement becomes almost abstract, lessening the emotional draw. The final image of George looking ‘down at his beer, turning the can slowly in his hand’ as silence ‘settle[s] around them’ (p79) could perhaps indicate the futility of trying to break longstanding silences, but doesn’t break through the surface of the characters’ suspension. At other times, Buckle supplies some excellent visual sketches: ‘…another glance, almost too quick to spot, slides off me’ (‘A Lovely Afternoon’ p83). The dialogue between Buckle’s characters is at times uneven — unexciting between Steve and Emma in ‘Choices’ and the hikers in ‘The Man on the Path’, but well-observed and paced between allies Jeannie and Zoe in ‘A Lovely Afternoon’:
‘Shelley’s always getting me into trouble,’ Zoe says. ‘It’s not fair.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ I say.
‘My friend Lauren gave me a book, and Shelley can’t even read yet but she said we had to share it.’
‘Perhaps she’s jealous because she didn’t get anything,’ I offer.
‘Even if she had, she still would’ve wanted my book.’
When some people think you’ve got something you shouldn’t have, I want to say, they’ve just got to try and spoil it for you. (p84)
The effect created by the stories in Habits of Silence is cumulative, its richness coming across in the details of dogged attempts to find value in desolation and loneliness (‘Sex and Money’); the longing for intimacy in any form (‘Us and Them’), and the silent tragedy of human beings going about their rigidly patterned lives (‘Fifty Years’).
Félix Calvino’s So Much Smoke is crisply blurbed, setting up readers to expect semi-autobiographical stories from the Galicia region of Spain and migration to Australia around the 1970–80s. While the influence of journeys pulses evenly through the collection, Calvino is expressively concerned with ritual, some of which bind his characters to their origins, others signifying their physical and mental advancement in the world. In ‘They Are Only Dreams’ and ‘The Hen’, the rites are of passage, with children coming into, or attempting to come into, their identities as mature beings; while ‘Valley of the Butterflies’ charts Julián’s entry into a darker adulthood suggestive of manipulation and conscious harm. The unexpected confidence between Pascual and the narrator in ‘What Do You Know About Your Friends?’ is prompted by a ritual formed in a new setting:
Half a dozen of us, all in our mid-twenties and all with no more than three years in Australia, were in the habit of dropping into the pub late on Saturday afternoon for a few beers and a chat on the way to our girlfriends, dinner, or just a night on the town. (p11)
The preparation and sharing of meals is described as an integral part of domestic life regardless of the degree of happiness within the home: ‘The Smile’ depicts a lunch gathering where guests are lulled into silence by Consuelo’s nostalgia-inducing home cooking, as well as a comfort meal of chicken and potatoes following her death. Within Calvino’s wide exploration of ritual, silence occasionally features: in stories of migration, where present dwelling on past lives is regarded as a dangerous pastime, silence is a rite of survival. Silence is also politicised through Gabriel in ‘The Dream Girl’, who reflects on the choice of language as an expression of cultural freedom:
What right has a government to subordinate—in the long run to murder—one language that is the property of all to replace it with another language in the quest for personal and nationalistic glory? (p120)
With So Much Smoke, as with Habits of Silence, it is worthwhile to ask whose voice is, in general, quietened — similarly to Buckle, Calvino articulates the narratives of the lesser-heard. The characters he identifies as migrants are shown dealing with implications of difference and the tension between their origins and present locations. Pascual’s sharing of a family tragedy with a fellow migrant is seen as ‘a flaw in the armour of his carefree mask’ behind which, in the narrator’s opinion, painful secrets should remain (p15); elsewhere, a group of friends reflects on ‘the life they had left behind and what they missed most as migrants’ (p52), thereby reducing their feelings of isolation. Told in implicit retrospect and with a sincere lack of ironic reference to contemporary immigration policy, Calvino’s stories of migration to Australia depict a Golden Age of this iconically hospitable and tolerant land: Fidel remarks that ‘in Sydney, we had discovered peace and joy and self-reliance. We were living our lives. The living like wounded animals searching for a place to hide was over’ (p104). With the same lack of irony, Calvino emphasises the fabled virtues of family, education, hard work and fidelity when, for example, the uncomplaining José is rewarded with riches at the conclusion of ‘The Road’. Given a non-laying chicken to slaughter, the boy in ‘The Hen’ is told by his mother, ‘Make it quickly so she does not suffer…’ (p5); while the remembered recognition of his parents’ ‘rituals of love across the kitchen table’ partially redeem the seedy John Benson of the eponymous story (p33). These details, sanguine and unsentimental, have the effect of illuminating a world beyond this variegated, rarely meritorious reality: within So Much Smoke, as it should be outside the text, migrants retain their humanity, education is a dignified goal, and culture and memories are treasured and preserved.
Keeping the reader engaged can be challenging for short fiction collections with multiple narrative trajectories and emotional pitches. Calvino’s collection could benefit from greater tautness, particularly in the lengthy central narrative ‘The Smile’, which includes an extended, dreamlike account of Fidel and Consuelo’s backstory. At other times, the dialogue is blurred by a similarly surreal tone that’s often formal, rather like a stilted translation:
‘Where does that broadcast come from?’ José asked.
‘The radio is Fidel’s baby,’ Consuelo replied. ‘Hasn’t he shown it to you yet?’
(‘The Smile’ p83)
In the dialogue-driven ‘They Are Only Dreams’, the same technique sets a portentous tone, highlighting the threat that the anonymous girl’s augury poses to peaceful village life. ‘So Much Smoke’ is murky in emotion and writing — ‘an incestuous relationship between lantana and passionfruit vines’ (p29) — and strewn with language (‘porch’, ‘mailbox’ and ‘apartments’) that seems too modern to be a deliberate contrast against the story’s implied retro setting. Quite possibly it is the nostalgic tint in Calvino’s writing that provokes a comparison to bygone writers like Ernest Hemingway. Calvino is similarly lean, and frequently elegant, in his powers of description: ‘After the leaves turned gold, they tended to the corn and the potatoes and the wood for winter’ (p17). So Much Smoke is noticeably male-focused, with attention given to inter-generational relationships and friendships between men; female characters are present but lacking somewhat in dimension.
While Buckle engages with and minutely examines reality to the edgy benefit of her work, Calvino is more mellow and reserved without being detached from reality: both occupy places of instantaneous belonging in the current literary landscape, fulfilling a need to have short fiction emit starker and softer lights by turns. Habits of Silence and So Much Smoke attest to the valiance of short fiction of and in contemporary Australia, and to the intrigue of the images captured by their authors.
Kathryn Hummel is a writer, researcher and poet: the author of Poems from Here, The Bangalore Set and The Body That Holds. Her new media/poetry, non-fiction, fiction, photography and scholarly research has been published and presented worldwide (Meanjin, Cordite, Rabbit, The Letters Page, Prelude, PopMatters, Gulf Times, Himal Southasian), and recognised with a Pushcart Prize nomination and the Dorothy Porter Prize at the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards. Kathryn holds a PhD for studies in narrative ethnography and lives intermittently in South Asia. Her activities can be tracked @ kathrynhummel.com.