Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A really good collection of short stories is a rarity these days. It takes a whole host of skills to do the job properly – the selection of just the right word, the sentence that encapsulates exactly what the writer wanted to say, the discipline that never eases because parameters have been set and the writing has not the space to wander off the path to that final full stop. There’s no smelling the daisies or enjoying the feel of the sun’s rays or extolling the beauty of the bellbird in the forest – unless it progresses the story line.
And so many writers, who might have contributed to the short story genre, leave that form of writing to the playwright. They will argue that there is no market for the short story anyhow. Fortunately, Mihaela Nicolescu and Nadine Browne think otherwise. The Whip Hand showcases the talents of two writers prepared to buck the trend.
There is nothing original about selecting the human condition as the focus of a collection of short tales, and these writers attempt to take full advantage of their subject, dealing with, and dissecting, the many faces of humanity with varying degrees of success. In her opening offering, Nicolescu reminds us of the need of every mother to nurture her child. The originality appears in the selection of a tough young woman, barely out of childhood herself, as the nurturer. She has no idea what being a mother means. Nicolescu follows this story with an absolute gem – an appraisal of the Australian attitude towards refugees, a story told in a creative way that speaks the truth while deploring the insular ignorance of most Australians. “When I go in house again it late and I smile. Mrs Omar ask why I smile and where I been and why I not work. I keep smile and I say, ‘Whatever'” (24). Loved it.
Nicolescu follows that story with the infinitely sad ‘Frozen’. The stories keep coming, each investigating what it means to be human, what we do to ourselves, how petty, or angry, or bitter, or nice we can be towards our own kind. In grief there is humour in knowing just the right thing to say to restore a sense of proportion we all need to live by. In this respect the story called ‘Strays’ invites special mention. It is sad. It rouses pity. It brings the reader back from the height of emotion to a crashing realisation that the perception of one person’s tragedy may be very different when viewed with the eyes of another.
When she spoke it was a low moan, too deep for her small frame…She whispered hotly against her daughter’s cheek.
“Mina, forgive me, I let her die alone in that awful, awful place.”… Mina hushed her mother soothingly, but Elena went on, in English, calmly now.
“…I found her two days later in a home. They had plucked her off the street and she died in the heat. She couldn’t remember where she lived. She died.”
Mina thought of Lili, alone in her final moments… Mina moved closer to [Elena].
“Mami, I shagged Alice’s boyfriend. I have been fucking my best friend’s guy for over a year. Over a year. And I don’t really feel bad. Just annoyed that he still loves me. And I hate her for not hating me, for not screaming at me, for just being…sad.”
Elena froze, hand poised with the tissue. Their eyes met…”. (90 – 91)
You can guess the rest. Just a magical moment.
Unfortunately, Nicolescu lets her attention slip. Amongst all this rich fanfare of creative thought appears (in ‘Fig’, page 93) an unacknowledged borrowing from Sir Winston Churchill. This is the unfortunate ‘enigma’ reference whose disguise is not enough to hide the original Churchillian comment. The story continues but Nicolescu’s concentration lapses, and the story slips this time into farce: “They were the kind of tits a prepubescent boy comes across in an old ‘60s porn mag and is immediately and irrevocably turned gay” (93). The world has moved on. The audience no longer laughs at this nonsense.
The second half of this collection consists of a series of stories by Nadine Browne. While well conceptualised, this writer’s work suffers from proximity to the explosion of brilliance of the Nicolescu tales. There is an additional issue. The stories have to be viewed on two levels: on the one hand as the work of Nicole Brown uninfluenced by Mihaela Nicolescu. On the other the collection is the work of both women and should be viewed as a unit.
Browne opens her offering with a weird story about ‘Strange Fruit’. I think this might have been about having to declare fruit at the South Australia-Western Australia border, but the narrative wanders all over the place both geographically and temporally. It’s probably best if I leave this story alone and move on to another.
‘The Jerry Can’, the next story in the collection, is built around the lives of a number of societal misfits. I found my attention wandering and forced myself to step back and refocus. There is a narrator who begins the tale by watching her obese, reclusive neighbour making her way into the neighbouring house while carrying a jerry can. Soon after she returns to her home. We find out that our narrator has a criminal conviction for planting hundreds of trees in the neighbourhood. She is on medication and receives regular counselling. There is a fire, our narrator remembers the jerry can, and heads off late at night to plant a whole lot of trees.
The point of the story eludes me, but the reasonable requirement of any editor holds today as it did four hundred years ago when Polonius promised “to be brief” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 2). The short story requires a tight rein, a sharp focus, and a vocabulary whose every word is meaningful.
‘The Jerry Can’ does not meet the succinctness criterion.
With her stories ‘Clean’ and ‘Drowning’, Browne has lifted the quality of her work. Both stories would profit from a severe edit but they are better told than the first two in this collection. ‘Playing Dead’ is a story that Browne tells with skill and knowledge. She is firmly in control. I would have said that this was her best work if it had not been pipped at the post by the sophisticated and completely engaging ‘The Tower’.
The first thing to be said about this collection of short stories is the excitement they will generate in a reading public starved of exposure to the genre. The main problem with the stories as a unit is two-fold. First, Nicolescu produces good quality work consistently, but when her concentration lapses, her standard plummets. Browne is capable of work of equivalent merit but does not always produce it. These criticisms appear harsh but could be made to disappear if, before publication, a process of private appraisal and judicious selection were applied by the authors themselves.
I welcome the courage of Mihaela Nicolescu, Nadine Browne and Fremantle Press who showed the way to an exciting, genre rescue. May others follow their lead!
By Mihaela Nicolescu and Nadine Browne