Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brief Book Review: 'New Australian Stories 2' Ed: Aviva Tuffield (2010)

Brief Book Review: New Australian Stories 2 Ed: Aviva Tuffield (2010)

Both Scribe Publications (New Australian Stories)and Black Inc. (Best Australian Stories) should be congratulated for their focus on nurturing and promoting Australian short fiction. These collections are credible homes, which promote both ‘name’ writers as well as those lesser known to a wider reading audience.

I am a late arrival to Australian short fiction and outside of Overland Literary Journal and the occasional Griffith Review I rarely read it at all. Short fiction from overseas just seemed more colourful in general. I was adverse to the repetitive, desiccated and colourless landscapes; as well as stories with plotlines so thin they seemed to dangle by a thread. Of recent times though (largely via journal reading) I have been pleased to discover the bevy of talented Australian writers out there. Even our landscapes, both rural and urban, have developed into something that intrigues me, possibly due to their tangibility.

The reason behind buying New Australian Stories 2 is that A.G McNeil, who works at New Edition Bookstore (while completing his PhD), told me that it included one of his pieces. So to support a fellow Perthite I bought the collection and enjoyed his story‘ Reckless, Susceptible’, which darkly but effectively delves into a relationship while including an interesting thread about animals.

The anthology itself consists of varying themes that all call for reflection within our own lives. There is a certain richness to many of the stories that can make reading challenging at times - but ultimately rewarding. Australian fiction in general seems to move at a slower pace and the old emphasis on place and drawing out almost every moment is still dominant; as is ‘realism’. It was refreshing to read two solid stories brave enough to venture away from the mundane in Sonja Dechian’s ‘The Cats of Unspeakable Kindness’and the metaphorical‘Moth’ by Jennifer Mills.

There were a handful of stories(which I will not mention) that I forced myself to plough through but that was more a matter of taste rather than quality. And a handful of stories is a winning ratio for any anthology of this magnitude – there are 36 all up.

Personally, I perceived eight tales as standouts. ‘Reward Offered’ by John Bauer is a superb piece which focuses on loneliness in the elderly and to what extent they may go to in the search for company and gratitude. The aged protagonist’s devilry captivates in a tale that is also quite touching. Ryan O’Neil’s ‘Four-Letter Words’ is clever, humorous, tragic and sentimental with a witty structure. My one overly pedantic criticism (a product of my Greek heritage) is that the word mania may have come into English via Latin but is of Greek origin and not Latin as stated. ‘Harry’ by Emma Schwarz, explores time, relationships and a partner’s influence when Harry, whose wife is critically ill, is taken on a hotel holiday by his daughter who aims to liberate him a little. ‘Papa’s Last Command’ by Jane McGown is an interesting rural story that successfully highlights issues of racism, bullying and ethics. Its ending, however, may appear a tad dramatic when compared to the surrounding stories. I was hooked by Ruby J. Murray’s ‘Outback’; a well-written story that looks at temptation and fidelity. An ever-present sense of danger is used most effectively in ‘The Chamber’by Meg Mundell to lure the reader in while presenting a range of issues. ‘Static’by Cate Kennedy is a wonderful story that says so much in its family-at-Christmastime fourteen pages; it also suitably lives up to its title in a thematic sense. And finally ‘The Cheroot’ by Marion Halligan is an illustration of sheer prose mastery. I found the plot itself slightly tacky but there is no denying Halligan’s wizardry here. The atmosphere, heat and isolated river setting are written by an author at the peak of her game. Her word choice and voice are as good as I have read.
‘After Rachel’ by Tony Birch; ‘Like a Virgin’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight and ‘Fallen Women’ by Jane Sullivan are also very strong works.

Some critics have presented an argument that many of the stories are not ‘new’, referring to the fact that a number are sourced from literary journals. I find this reasoning quite tenuous. Journals deserve their stories to be promoted to the wider reading public (as do writers). The immeasurable hours that go into a piece mean that a ‘newish’ story deserves as many opportunities to be read as possible.
For the more literary minded New Australian Stories 2 is well worth the read and it comes with the added bonus of allowing you to sample work from some of Australia’s gifted writers.


  1. I think Meg Mundell lives in Melbourne and writes some spec fic...? If something is a "best of" it makes sense the stories have been published before.

  2. Hi Sue. Some of 'New Australian Stories 2' have not been published before, others are from a couple of writing comps, and many are sourced from journals over the previous couple of years. 'Therein lies the rub' that a few critics have - they have read some before and therefore they are not 'new'. Obviously, I disagree entirely and feel that it is a credit to Scribe that they publish both new and 'newish' stories. If a story has been published elsewhere, it should not make it old. It is not like they have excavated for stories harking back to the dark ages of 5 years ago. Meg's tale was a standout as mentioned. It was not speculative but I have noticed (as you rightly pointed out) that she has earned a couple of Aurealis Award nominations for 2011. So there you go. And congrats to her too.