Intensity and Focus: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV’

Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV, edited by Julianne Schultz, Text Publishing


gr54-novellaAs the subtitle suggests, this is the fourth year in which Griffith Review has dedicated its annual fiction edition to the novella, ‘those stories’, as editor Julianne Schultz put it in her introduction to the first edition in 2012, ‘that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.’ By undertaking its novella project, Griffith Review has made a significant contribution to the revival of the novella form. Seizure runs an annual Viva La Novella competition, publishing its first winner in 2013 and some individual short fiction collections now include novellas, such as Here where we live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski and Australia Day by one of the contributors to Earthly Delights, Melanie Cheng, which won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

From its inception, Griffith Review’s novella project has presented a mix of contemporary and historical fiction, of well-known and emerging authors. It has delighted readers especially with its novellas’ intensity, achieved in part as a result of their strong focus on character. It is that intensity and focus, I suggest, which makes these novellas linger in the mind long after they have been read the first time.

This year’s edition, entitled Earthly Delights, features five novellas selected from 177 entries, and all are contemporary.

In her novella ‘Muse’, Melanie Cheng focuses on an elderly man who grieves for his late wife Lola. Cheng hooks the reader in her first lines by displaying her skill at detail, simile and alliteration:

I’ve neglected her. Her ceilings are soft with cobwebs. Her garden is choked with weeds. Her fence leans, like buckteeth, out onto the footpath. She is getting old, and noisy. Like me, with my snorts and grunts and farts that catch even me by surprise. Her doors creak, her heating claps itself to life, and her pipes splutter up their rusty sputum.

The first person narrator is somewhat estranged from his daughter Bea. One night Bea brings her lover Edwina for dinner, and Edwina, an artist, sparks in him a renewed interest in creativity, and he joins a life drawing class. His focus on the model in turn propels his reflections about his late wife and his former lover. A moving story about family and an elderly man’s life and memories.

Graham Lang is a writer and visual artist who grew up in South Africa and Zimbabwe. His novella ‘A fulcrum of infinites’ explores the meaning of home, ownership and belonging. A terminally ill Aboriginal man, Saul, travels to the Australian outback to die on the land of his ancestors. He settles on the ground under the only tree he can find, close to the house of an elderly farmer who wants him to leave, especially after Saul explains that his ancestors once roamed this land. Lang’s story focuses on the changing nature of the relationship between these two men.

In its focus on an Aboriginal man, ‘A fulcrum of infinites’ does, however, raise the issue of cultural appropriation (http://www.annettemarfording.com/cultural-approriation/) which raged recently in response to Lionel Shriver’s opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of whether authors should be free to write from any perspective and point of view, for those who create an Aboriginal protagonist it is crucial to make him or her authentic, and I’m not sure whether Saul fulfils that criterion. Apart from that reservation, this novella is haunting and well written. Lang’s skills as a writer are particularly evident in his creation of a strong sense of place and in his development of the two characters through their dialogue.

Interestingly, Daniel Jenkins’ novella ‘Those boys from Jalaan’ gives rise to a related issue of authorial freedom. This is not because his novella is set in rural Oman – Jenkins uses his own teaching experience there to good effect, and his main characters are Australian and American teachers –, but because his two protagonists are women, one of whom is sexually assaulted. Despite a small niggle in that respect, ‘Those boys from Jalaan’ gives a good insight into the lives of expatriate women working in an Islamic country.

Although the quality of the writing is high in all these novellas, it jumps to another level with the utterly compelling novellas by Suzanne McCourt, ‘The last taboo: A love story’, and Stephen Orr, ‘Datsunland’, which at more than 100 pages is the length of a short novel. Both McCourt’s and Orr’s latest novels were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and both were on the respective lists of my top ten reads in 2014 and 2015 (www.rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/12/12/annette-marfordings-best-reads-of-2015/) respectively.

In Suzanne McCourt’s case that novel was her 2014 debut The Lost Child, in which McCourt excelled at creating the voice, world and wonder of a young child growing up in an environment of fear, poverty and her mother’s mental breakdown in the aftermath of domestic violence. In her novella ‘The last taboo: A love story’ McCourt shows herself to be equally masterful in immersing the reader in the inner and outer life of a woman in search for – and eventually reunited with – the son she gave up for adoption at birth. Her use of the rarely used second person point of view is wonderfully suitable because the directly addressed reader is pulled even more strongly inside the narrator’s emotional turmoil of grief, guilt, fear, joy and love.

How does a mother greet a son she has not seen for twenty-three years? Are there rules for such occasions? Accepted etiquette? There is a moment after he closes the door when you’re both standing in the entry hall with barely room to move, and neither of you knows what to do. Your face feels tight with shyness, your mouth dry. But there is a strange recognition pushing into your brain: you are looking at yourself; you are looking at Jim; why hadn’t you expected this? And suddenly you are in each other’s arms.

You can feel the focus, the intensity. And in terms of where she takes this mother’s love, McCourt shows herself to be as fearless as Peter Goldsworthy in his novel Wish in creating an utterly plausible result of overwhelming love.

Stephen Orr’s latest novel was The Hands: An Australian Pastoral (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/05/19/the-politics-of-the-australian-pastoral-jonathan-dunk-reviews-the-hands-by-stephen-orr/). In that poignant and haunting novel Orr explored the impact of the drought on the family of a cattle farmer. His accomplishments as a writer were evident in his psychological insight into his characters, the sparkling dialogue between them, and the spare, vivid detail he brought to conveying the dusty, barren landscape. He displays the same skills in his novella ‘Datsunland’. This time the setting is urban and the relationships he explores are those between a teenaged boy and his father and especially between the boy and his guitar teacher at the private Catholic school which both of them loathe. Orr cleverly makes use of the ongoing child sexual abuse scandals, especially at private schools, to make the reader worry for the teenager’s safety as the relationship between him and the guitar teacher grows ever closer.

Earthly Delights finishes with a special gift to the reader: an extract of the novel The White Experiment which Cory Taylor was writing when she became too ill from her melanoma-related brain cancer to continue. The book Dying: A Memoir she wrote instead – in a few weeks – was published six weeks before her death and gained international acclaim for its power, courage and clarity. The novel extract is bittersweet because every reader will mourn the loss of this immensely talented writer even more while reading it.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors http://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV is available from https://griffithreview.com/

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