Elena Gomez

Solitude is a wonderful enabler of art, but as we learn from Stephen Scourfield’s stories, it can engulf us in the absence of external balancing forces and can become dangerous in the process. Each of the characters in Stephen Scourfield’s three novellas (a craftsman, a novelist, and a student of nature) is a solitary, with the possible exception of Bea, the septuagenarian companion of Matthew Rossi in the second novella, Like Water, who is slightly more inclined towards relationships than Matthew, who says of his ‘fistful’of girlfriends, ‘In terms of human relationships, the only thing I enjoy more than their company is not having their company.’ When practised by Dr Bartholomew Milner, naturalist and Ethical Man, solitude’s dangers become obvious.

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The short story form is the realm of perfection, proclaims Steven Millhauser in his 2008 New York Times essay, ‘The Ambition of the Short Story’, in which the ‘virtues of smallness’ are dissected, along with the successes and shortcomings of the genre. Jess Huon’s first short story collection, The Dark Wet, could be described in many ways, but ‘small’ is not one of them. Across three ‘sequences’, these nine stories cover much ground, not only geographically – they span from Melbourne to San Francisco to Varanasi, India – but thematically, too, exploring the confusion of falling in love with a best friend, the fuzziness at the edges of gender, the fluidity of religion or faith.

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The historical novel has always been characterised by a formative tension – the demands of history versus the demands of story. The author is caught between relegating the past to a prettified background, or the characters to merely personified social forces. Michelle Aung Thin’s début novel tends more towards the former than the latter, illustrating both the dangers and the pleasure to be found in negotiating between these poles.

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