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Laura Jean McKay

Gunflower by Laura Jean McKay

December 2023, no. 460

Laura Jean McKay’s new collection, Gunflower, offers a range of disturbing, deftly satiric, and sometime bizarre short stories. As in her award-winning novel The Animals in that Country (2022), some of the stories in the collection explore the relationship between the human and non-human, and often challenge rational explanations or simple allegorical interpretations for the imaginative worlds they create. Even the conventional realist narratives sometimes defy generic conventions. The story ‘Flying Rods’, for example, moves from standard verisimilitude to Gothic horror. ‘Site’ transforms the familiar terrain of an adulterous affair with repeated descriptions of a ship sighted off the coast, such that the ship’s symbolic meanings remain tantalisingly unclear.

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Talking animals in fiction have, for the most part, been confined to children’s or otherwise peripheral literature. Yet they often serve a serious purpose. Aesop’s fables, with their anthropoid wolves, frogs, and ants, have been put to use as moral lessons for children since the Renaissance. The ‘it-narrative’, fashionable in eighteenth-century England and perhaps best exemplified by Francis Coventry’s History of Pompey the Little: Or, the life and adventures of a lap-dog (1752), saw various animals expatiate their suffering at human hands.

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Seamlessly extending from the French occupation of Cambodia to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the current tourism industry, Laura Jean McKay’s début short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia, is a powerful portrait of a country long-affected by war and poverty. McKay’s knowledge of the Cambodian landscape underpins the collection. She evokes peak-hour from a motorbike, where ‘everything looks like bushfire, like nicotine’, and notes the forgotten landmines of neighbouring paddocks, which ‘travel like worms’ through loosening earth. In one of the shortest and most affecting pieces, ‘A Thousand Cobs of Corn’, a Cambodian woman looks down at her husband’s hands in the night, ‘which have shaken since he was a boy soldier’.

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