Smart Ovens for Lonely People
by Elizabeth Tan
Brio Books, $29.99 pb, 320 pp
Though its origins are unknown, the earliest sense of the word ‘quirk’ was as a subtle verbal twist or a quibble. Over time, its definition has become more nuanced: a quirk now also refers to a person’s peculiar or idiosyncratic traits, chance occurrences, and sudden, surprise curves appearing on paths or in facial expressions. Quirks can also be accidents, vagaries, witty turns of phrase.
Elizabeth Tan’s first collection of short stories, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, encapsulates quirkiness in complex and compelling ways (without the sneer of saccharine cuteness this adjective often evokes). Its opening move, for instance, is a bold one. The lead piece is a work of flash fiction, so there’s little space for it to act as the spokes-story for the rest of the collection, and its tone is deceptively soft. In well under two pages, ‘Night of the Fish’ offers a glimpse of development in an ordinary Australian suburb – a slide removed, a playground paved over – that is at once both beautiful and wholly unnerving.