Barbara Kingsolver, praising the skill required to write a memorable short story, described the form as entailing ‘the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces’. Her description certainly applies to Jennifer Down’s wonderful début collection, Pulse Points. Using the typical strategies of suggestion, ambiguity, and inconclusiveness of those ‘tight spaces’, Down’s fourteen realist stories raise important questions about family, sexual relationships, and the role of place and social aspiration in the shaping of identity. While these are familiar subjects for literary fiction, Pulse Points is especially memorable for its range of characters and voices, and for its often haunting expression of the partial nature of knowledge generated by the short story form.
One of the most moving enactments of Kingsolver’s claim is the story ‘Aokigahara’, which won the 2014 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Narrated by a young Australian woman who travels to Japan in search of ‘answers’ following her brother’s death, the story uses shards of her memory, a structure of repeated deferral and the preternatural setting of a real forest, the notorious Sea of Trees, to evoke a melancholy sense of incompletion. It is also a story about the inadequacy of language to express profound grief, or to resolve the sister’s barely acknowledged feelings of guilt, or perhaps her own desire for oblivion. We hear all these possible meanings echoed in her affectless, passive voice. We also hear, in her repeated use of conventional syntax, enervated sentences which seem to lead nowhere in the very act of utterance. At times it feels like reading Samuel Beckett, leavened with the compassion of Alice Munro.