'Longing,’ thinks Hazel West, the twenty-five-year-old protagonist of Susan Midalia’s first novel, ‘I could begin a story with longing.’ This is a book about various kinds of longing: the desire for intimacy, for human understanding, for self-possession and self-forgetting. Most of all, though, this is a book about language, about linguistic ‘shades of meaning’. Hazel is preoccupied with the fit of things with their referents. Ironically, she stumbles over her word choices in almost every encounter. ‘Words ha[ve] important shades of meaning,’ she says, ‘which [is] why you should never use a thesaurus.’

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  • Custom Article Title Sophie Frazer reviews 'The Art of Persuasion' by Susan Midalia
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    'Longing,’ thinks Hazel West, the twenty-five-year-old protagonist of Susan Midalia’s first novel, ‘I could begin a story with longing.’ This is a book about various kinds of longing: the desire for intimacy, for human understanding, for self-possession and self-forgetting. Most of all ...

  • Book Title The Art of Persuasion
  • Book Author Susan Midalia
  • Biblio Fremantle Press, $25 pb, 248 pp, 9781925591033

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.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Susan Midalia reviews 'Pulse Points' by Jennifer Down
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Pulse Points
  • Book Author Jennifer Down
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 225 pp, 9781925355970

Susan Midalia's Feet to the Stars references Sylvia Plath's poem 'You're', in which Plath addresses her unborn child: 'Clownlike, happiest on your hands, / Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled, / Gilled like a fish ...' This clever title foreshadows Midalia's exploration of children in the family dynamic and the use of intertextuality, which are integral to her short stories.

This is Midalia's third book of short stories. In Feet to the Stars, joy and ambivalence mingle in stories that reference the filial (often mother–daughter) relationship. The emphasis on propagation is illustrated by the number of characters who are childless or have miscarried and is further complicated by the question of whether the drive to produce children might be, 'An ego thing. You know, just wanting to replicate your own miserable life.'  Women in 'The Inner Life' and 'Working It Out' have miscarried; in 'Oranges', the baby is 'failing to thrive'; in 'The Hook' and 'A Blast of a Poem', the protagonists mourn the absence of a child in their lives:

We kept on trying. We kept on talking. It'll happen soon. Don't worry. We've got plenty of time. No earthly reason. Just relax, our friends began to chorus, the ones with fuzzy-haired gurgling babies and dimpled toddlers ... Relax was what my GP said as well, what the expert on the radio said. I tried different kinds of herbal tea and St. John's Wort, also known as chase-devil.

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  • Custom Article Title Cassandra Atherton reviews 'Feet to the Stars' by Susan Midalia
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Feet to the Stars and other stories
  • Book Author Susan Midalia
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio UWA Publishing, $24.99 pb, 180 pp, 9781742587547

In one of the reflective essays that complement her new collection of stories, My Hearts Are Your Hearts, Carmel Bird likens short story writing to the art of the conjuror who takes ‘coloured silk handkerchiefs, pull[s] them all in to make a ball, and then, with a flourish, open[s] them up as a full-blown rose’. This charming metaphor suggests not only Bird’s understanding of the subtlety and skill required to create memorable short stories, but also her delight in playing the role of magician. While her essays provide insights into the origins, crafting, and intended effects of the twenty stories in this collection, they also brim with exuberance about the process of writing, especially its often unconscious or ‘mysterious’ nature. One of Australia’s more prolific and renowned authors, Bird clearly hasn’t lost her enthusiasm and sense of wonder as she enters the imaginative world of fiction. It is an experience she’s keen to share with her readers. As one of her essays has it: ‘[t]he stories in this collection are really intended to please and entertain the reader.’

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Susan Midalia reviews 'My Hearts Are Your Hearts' by Carmel Bird
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title My Hearts Are Your Hearts
  • Book Author Carmel Bird
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Spineless Wonders, $27.99 pb, 228 pp, 9781925052213
Monday, 26 May 2014 16:53

Susan Midalia on Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is already a well-known Melbourne voice: a fiction writer and slam poet with an enthusiastic following. Now we have her first collection of short stories, Foreign Soil – the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript – and it is a remarkable collection indeed. While its ten stories, ranging in length from fifteen to fifty pages, are unashamedly political, they are never reductively polemical. Nourished by Clarke’s empathetic imagination, her narratives create the lived experience of suffering and despair, resilience and hope, for the powerless, the discarded, the socially adrift. And while the collection focuses on race relations and racial identity – an emphasis perhaps attributable to Clarke’s Afro-Caribbean heritage – it rejects the simple model of white oppressor–black victim. We are shown, for example, the ugly misogyny of 1960s black male activists; the distressing class arrogance of a black Ugandan doctor towards his black servant and white lover; the hard-won solidarity between a young black woman and her white employer. As well as being ideologically complex, the stories also resist easy moral judgements; Clarke encourages us to listen to the voices of those who are typically silenced. These wonderfully performative stories thus have a decidedly old-fashioned but ethically crucial aim: to refine the reader’s sympathies, to educate the heart.

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  • Custom Article Title Susan Midalia on Maxine Beneba Clarke
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Foreign Soil
  • Book Author Maxine Beneba Clarke
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hachette Australia, $24.99 pb, 272 pp, 9780733632426

From the opening page of this her second collection of stories, Susan Midalia propels her uncertain and wavering female character into an alien environment. Enter the concrete world of Moscow airport, its people who think you are simple if you smile at them, its ‘prowling men straight out of gangster movies’, tension as the blank, unblinking woman at immigration ‘held up a rubber stamp for ten, fifteen seconds, and then thumped it down on the passport. Petra felt her legs untighten.’

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Robert Horne reviews 'An Unknown Sky and Other Stories' by Susan Midalia
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title An Unknown Sky and Other Stories
  • Book Author Susan Midalia
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio UWA Publishing, $24.95 pb, 184 pp, 9781742584270