A Mirror of Ourselves: Heather Taylor Johnson Reviews ‘An Astronaut’s Life’ by Sonja Dechian

An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian Text 2015

astronauts lifeIs anyone else sick of hearing that the short story is a dying form when it seems like it’s never been more popular? Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection Foreign Soil was one of last year’s most talked about books, and hasn’t Cate Kennedy been busy on the festival circuit talking about the power of the genre? I’m giving the negativity toward short stories a very big pshaw because it’s all a bunch of dribble as far as I’m concerned. I suggest we all buy Sonja Dechian’s debut collection An Astronaut’s Life and debunk the tired theory. It’d do wonders for small and independent publishers, and then we’d have something engaging and intelligent to read at night in snippets of ten to twenty pages.
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With a steady, no-nonsense prose style, peculiar scenarios and subtle turns in plot, An Astronaut’s Life reflects our messy world, or shows us what it could become if we keep messing with it. It’s a confronting view, however familiar. Dechian’s characters trudge their way through the modern muck of climate change and human indifference, and I’ve been asking myself for the last few days if it’s escape they are ultimately seeking or connection. Being unable to decipher between the two motifs or even confusing one for the other mightn’t be such a bad thing, though; it might be a suggestion that there is balance between our own narcissistic need to feel loneliness and our staunch rejection of it, and that the meeting point of escape and connection is what makes Dechian’s characters into mirrors of ourselves.

It’s a chaotic world the author has dreamed up, and it is our world, too, though slightly off kilter. Themes the author’s world shares with mine: cyber bullying, refugees drowning in water, the threat of extinction, disease, crime, flooding, and all the while babies being born. These are pressing issues and the sharpest of our writers are tackling them as we speak, Dechian now edging in and joining the race to get people to think about what the finish line might mean. With a wry sensibility and stark prose style, Dechian uses literary fiction to hand us the nanobots of sci-fi writers and the complete absence of birds from writers of an apocalyptic stream. This is not new – we’ve all read Orwell and Cormac McCarthy – but it’s fashionable and attention-grabbing because now more than ever the worlds of these writers and the worlds of their readers seem to be closing in on one another.

The book begins with ‘After Francis Crick’, where a man who has just re-entered consciousness finds himself nostalgic for the days of his coma. Now he has a baby on the way and a wife who is too structured; then, while he was comatose, he spent his days with Francis Crick, discussing and theorising genetics over glasses of juice with umbrellas in them. Crick, the father of genetics, of course is dead, while the baby, obviously, is coming. The birth of another child foregrounds ‘The Foreman’, a story of a zoo /  museum for endangered and extinct species, where Dechian paints a picture of the last living whale trapped in a sixty-million litre tank so deftly that you’ll see it in your dreams after you’ve closed the book. While in one story the baby’s life force is thriving, in the other it is vulnerable, paired with annihilation. Perhaps the balance between the two (indeed perhaps between all of the stories) can be found in the final story, ‘The Astronaut’s Life’. Here, father and child bond over the threat of natural disaster and the fragile but enduring beauty of what the after-effects might mean for a devastated planet.

My personal favourites centre on the celebrity of crime. In ‘Nights in at the House’, a near-novella, two women and their son navigate home and their relationship while police dig up their backyard looking for corpses. In one of the shortest stories, ‘Incurable’, parents of the children who have succumbed to a new and deadly virus caused by a classroom owl vie for bragging rights to memorial tributes. In one story the community strength is almost shockingly overwhelming while in the other empathy stems from a wicked display egotism.

Each story in An Astronaut’s Life really is worth a mention because though there are stand-outs, they all share a unique quirk-quality that mixes with profound compassion, so nothing is ever twee or too dramatic and they all project themselves as tiny gems. The collection seems to be founded on Dechian asking ‘what if’ and the most enjoyable part about the reading experience is getting to ‘and then’. There are no answers; she cleverly leaves them up to the reader. Most significant in this collection, though, is the calmness to Dechian’s writing, ensuring that the crazed set-ups and the characters’ desire for and move toward either disconnection and escape or connection and embrace feel rational. Like something we would do. And that’s the most frightening thing about this provoking collection.

 – Heather Taylor Johnson

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Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of three books of poetry and one novel. Her fourth book of poetry will be published by Five Islands Press. She is the poetry editor of Transnational Literature and is currently editing The Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. She recently gave a paper in Oxford discussing why poetry is the genre best suited to illness narratives.

An Astronaut’s Life is available at https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/an-astronaut-s-life

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