Scribe, $29.99 pb, 256 pp
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.
The collection is also centrally concerned with the pleasures and perils of embodiment. As its tripartite structure of Birth, Life, and Death implies, McKay is fascinated by the vulnerability and violence of our creaturely existence, often but not exclusively located in female experience. There are several standouts for me in the first section. The one-page story ‘Less’ is a brilliant example of compression. It begins with a woman’s skittish self-castigation – ‘She had completely forgotten to have children, and it was so embarrassing’ – and then cleverly riffs on the ambivalence of maternal identity. The extended narrative ‘Those Last Days of Summer’ is a visceral and disturbing protest against cruelty to animals, in which generations of doomed creatures locked in cages have their teeth removed, shed their skin, ‘eat slop with their faces,’ and are forced to send their offspring to war.