Dreams They Forgot by Emma Ashmere

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Henry David Thoreau – in his series of essays Walden – said ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.  Sometimes – and incorrectly – the words ‘and die with their song still inside them’ are added.  If ‘men’ is replaced with ‘women’, then this quote and its addendum is apposite regarding this book of short stories.

These short stories by South Australian writer Emma Ashmere explore the lives of those women on the fringes of communities and who are struggling to find a place for themselves in a world which seems determined to exclude them.  They are stories of failed hopes and dreams, failed relationships and sometimes of the inability of misfits to connect with others emotionally – in other words, lives of quiet desperation.

In the first story Winter Storms Iris is told: “‘But you must want to do something,’ my mother said, as I toyed with a damp frill of cabbage becalmed on a Sargasso Seas of peas and mince”. [3] The words ‘damp frill of cabbage’ by themselves immediately create in the reader’s mind a picture of the life Iris leads as she struggles without any hope of success to find some purpose to her life.

In Warhead, Percival Kemp ‘newly appointed schoolteacher’ looks at his reflection in a window – ‘The blankness of a single bed hovers behind his left shoulder.  The shrunken horizon of a scrubbed rented room’ [33].

In the same story, one of Kemp’s students Joshua Mills, the son of a priest, has seen one of the ‘poor-men’ fishing –

‘The man had turned to him:

C’m’ere boy

C’m’ere boy.’  [35]

The event which subsequently transpired between boy and man – while not described but left shimmering in the air – is not difficult to imagine as much as the reader may wish not to.

In The Long Life of Milk, secondary student Sandra is chosen for an Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange.  To celebrate, ‘[h]er mother makes Rice-a-Riso with chilli sauce’ [57].  While in Indonesia, Sandra visits her friend at her host parents’ home.  Sandra is shown some photographs and her friend – knowing the content of the photographs – warns her not to look at them.  However, in spite of the warning: ‘Sandra glimpses one.  Acid rises in her throat.  She feels dizzy.  She lurches to her feet and staggers out.’  [67]

In some stories, there is sudden retribution against those who have taken advantage of the dispossessed or the marginalised.  The suddenness occurs with a turn of a sentence or the jolting use of a powerful word.  In a meadow in France, Louisa is lying in the sun.  A van with a family enters the meadow and the father approaches Louisa ‘clutching a bottle of wine’; he lunges for her.  What then occurs is not stated but shortly after, he throws a handful of coins on the ground.  Louisa’s friend – the narrator of the story – takes her knife and approaches the man from behind and places the knife on ‘the greasy blue artery of his neck.  “‘Cocteau!’ yelled the girl [the man’s daughter].  ‘Knife’.”   [122]

One story – Polar Bears in Sydney Harbour ­– concludes with what perhaps is a comment on the male attitude to women but with an undercurrent of domestic violence.  The story’s last sentence [speaking of the polar bears] reads:

We think it was the heat.  The male, Winston, is usually quiet but he went and bit her head clean off. [136]

Overall, the stories are finely crafted and capture their protagonists at points in their lives where suddenly the direction changes, events occur which remain in the protagonists’ minds and shape their futures.  There is an intensely personal feel to many of the stories and it is not surprising to know that the author has applied her lived perspective to the stories.

The stories deserve to be read and read carefully with thought and empathy.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have been widely published including in the Age, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers magazine adda.  Stories in this collection have variously been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award, 2018 Newcastle Short Story Award and the 2001 Age Short Story Award.

Dreams They Forgot

[2020]

by Emma Ashmere

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 1 74305 706 3

$24.95; 228pp

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