University of Queensland Press, $29.99 pb, 276 pp
Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matter, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.
A number of stories feature versions of the Nobel Laureates themselves. ‘Growth’ concerns the Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi Montalcini, who, in contrast to the young girls immersed in needle point and the composition of affected nature poetry, turns her bedroom into a laboratory and her life into a career that ultimately triumphs over rampant misogyny and anti-Semitism. The story ‘Frost’ reveals both the intellectual strength and creaturely vulnerability of the chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, renowned for her discovery of insulin. The medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow in ‘Stockholm’ refrains from dwelling on past injustices – her treatment by ‘the faceless men … who failed to have faith in [her]’ – as she prepares to receive her prize.
More often the links between the work of the female scientists and the stories are indirect; cleverly oblique. The politically charged story ‘You Run Towards Love’, set in Paris in 2003 during ‘the hottest summer for five decades’, is prefaced by Marie Curie’s award for her work on radiation. The story requires readers to make a connection between then and now: one hundred years after Curie’s award for the medical benefits of radiation, France is confronted by the legacy of dangerous carbon emissions from nuclear reactors. Deftly avoiding the didacticism or self-righteousness that can mar overtly political fiction, the story also captures the voice of laconic indifference to rivers full of dead fish and indeed to the fate of the entire planet: ‘Who cared, really, about fish anymore? Who cared about one or two or even three degrees?’ The quirky story ‘Corn Queen’, prefaced by Barbara McClintock’s work on genetics, raises questions about genetically modified corn crops and celebrates gender modification in the form of cross-dressing. The work on odorant receptors by the biologist Linda B. Buck is used to frame an emotionally powerful story about a foul-smelling plant; ‘Titan Arum’ uses smell to symbolise the toxicity of parental abandonment and a grandfather’s murderous impulses towards his treacherous son-in-law. The intriguing allegory ‘Something Close to Gold’, in which an infertile couple adopts a baby washed up on the beach, can be read as a criticism of Australia’s ethically impoverished refugee policies and/or as undermining Western maternal entitlement. The unsettling story ‘The Fix’, prefaced by Donna Strickland’s work on optical pulses, plays on the concept of vision: while a woman’s laser surgery results in brilliantly clear eyesight, her dream of carnage on the road suggests a disturbing pre-vision of the fate of her marriage.
Complementing this refusal to place the complexities of human experience in tidy hermeneutic boxes is the collection’s tonal variety. ‘Garden Bridge’ is a grim representation of contemporary London, in which ‘unlit lanes and whiffy air, the grimy pavements’ mirror the despair of the city’s inhabitants. By contrast, ‘The Town Turns Over’ is a witty account of a defiant group of elderly people escaping from the ironically named Freedom Villas. The poignant story ‘Wing Span’, set in conservative, postwar Hobart, uses a series of artfully designed meanderings and the motif of flight to explore female creativity, sibling love, and repressed homoerotic desire. Like the best work of Alice Munro, it’s a heartbreaking expression of ‘the unsaid’.
Ordinary Matter also takes risks within the boundaries of fictional realism. The story ‘Little Fly’, for example, endows a tiny baby with conscious motivation and intent; it’s both conceptually audacious and utterly charming. Other stories use a paratactic structure to encompass the passing of decades, although with varying degrees of aesthetic success. Both ‘The Bodies Are Buried’ and ‘A Brief History of Petroleum’ are inclined to the summation of a character’s life, and as a consequence feel rushed or truncated. A much more satisfying example is the story ‘Hyperobject’, in which ten discrete sections of retrospective narration detail a woman’s work as a secretary on what she will much later come to learn was a deadly scientific project. Early sections reveal the narrator’s youthful naïveté; her description of being ‘pleased’ with her unknown work ‘down to her bones’ is a subtly ironic allusion to the bone marrow radiation sickness caused by one of history’s most egregious acts. The final section comes as a shock to both narrator and reader. The stories are also skilled in the art of imagism. ‘Fruit Flies’, for example, projects a young woman’s sense of dissociation and guilt onto the urban landscape, where she notices ‘orange peel in the gutter and a baby’s nappy, wrapped up tight, pale like a ball of dough’. But here, as elsewhere in the collection, there is hope to be salvaged from the anxieties and degradations of everyday life.
Ordinary Matter is, in the best sense, a surprising collection: intellectually ambitious; offering unexpected digressions and deliberately odd conjunctions; its ‘wing span’ traversing the world from Hobart to the Grand Canyon. This engaging and unusual collection will consolidate Elvery’s reputation as a writer of fine short stories, and will surely garner admiration for her willingness to try something new.