Collections of new Australian short stories by a single author have become a regular feature of Australian literary publishing in recent years. They are a welcome addition to the range of new writing available to the reading public. Collections that have unity of style, are thematically coherent and present a linked set of perceptions from the one creative source offer the reader much more than a light or fragmentary experience. Instead of the sustained characterisation of the novel, they can achieve a dazzling variety of episodes and moods. Robert Drewe’s Body Surfers and Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers are outstanding examples of how good the best collections of stories can be. It was a great delight to pick up I am a Boat by Sally Morrison and find that, although it is only her second book, in style, originality and literary quality, Morrison is fast approaching the Drewe and Garner class.
The eleven stories in I am a Boat explore intense, concentrated moments in the lives of her protagonists. They are moments of crises: of madness, of love realised or lost, of betrayal, or of sudden understanding. Through the crisis, the whole life of the central character is illuminated. Thus the stories are wonderfully dense in narrative, and Morrison’s economical, elegant style is absolutely right.
The stories are linked through the nature of the crises: they are all to do with love – in most cases, the ending of love. A woman tries to reach into her friend’s insanity to touch her with a gift; she fails, but through a haze of self-hatred becomes aware of her own madness. Renata faces the failure of erotic love. Her passionate young lover, Adam, shrinks and changes into a sullen, rejecting child. In the most pessimistic of the stories, ‘Don’t believe everything you hear’, three kinds of bad marriage are exposed and the best alternative to misery and violence is the barren and banal.
In Sally Morrison’s stories there are many failures. Men fail women, women fail men, men and women fail themselves. And women also fail women. ‘Crackers on the Corner’ is an agonisingly accurate account of a woman who finds herself increasingly repelled by her friend Pam’s eccentricities. Her discomfort at the realisation of her own intolerance and superficiality is made worse by the awareness that it is the presence of a new male lover in her life that has accelerated this betrayal. Despite the guilt, she proceeds to trick and scheme her way out of the connection. Women readers will find this story particularly searing. Abandoning an embarrassing girlfriend for a man is an act of treachery most of us first commit in our teens. Some women never get out of the habit.
The titular story, ‘I am a Boat’, is the best in the collection. It is a brilliant poetic allegory tracing the journey from the outset of a man’s love for a woman through its various stages: from initial enchantment, to total absorption, to restlessness, to difficulties and to final abandonment. The images of the allegory are wonderfully fresh and persuasive. It starts:
On a day when the Black Sea was not black, but shimmering shades of mystical blue and green, the poet Catullus bought himself a boat. She was shaped like a bean pod; pretty.
And it continues thus throughout this sad tale. The end, however, is not tragic. It is a triumphant getting of wisdom. Concluding this way, the collection, for all the pain it contains, is not a downer. What is learnt is worth the cost.
I am not sure whether there is much to be gained in discussing these stories as ‘women’s writing’. Certainly the perceptions, the eroticism, the nuances of observation come from female experience. Male readers however may also recognise the following point in the first stage of love: 'By the end of the day, the boat knew a lot about Catullus; but Catullus knew nothing at all about the boat.'
Perhaps the following tender description of sexual love could have only been written by a woman:
I would like to distil him and keep him in a jar of milky glass, lifting the smooth, round lid in desperate times, to listen to his sounds, fondle his shapes and have his smell about me like a cloak.
But perhaps not.
In any case, male or female lovers of the fresh, the sensitive, the complex will delight in these stories. The publishers, McPhee Gribble, have produced a characteristically elegant paperback, with an intriguing cover and generous typeface. If I am a Boat is a sample of what they have in store for us under their new independent colophon, the future looks brighter for readers and writers of fine Australian fiction, as well as for McPhee Gribble themselves.