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Sunday, 18 January 2009

1974, when Patrick White's short story collection The Cockatoos was first published, was a time of change in Australia in many ways. It'd be nice to think that White put out the collection in honour of the Whitlam government's ascent, but that's probably a little optimistic.

Nevertheless, 1974 was a time of regular Oz habits. I remember it would have been the time I started learning German and hanging around in the high school playground on winter mornings, getting close enough to a 44-gallon drum of burning refuse to keep out the chill. I guess I learned to swim about this time, too. White's new book was not on the radar.

Mum said White was a mysogynist. But this would be later on, when I was old enough to give a rat's about Australian literature. 1974 was the year after White won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A moment of clarity, perhaps?

'Clarity' is the word that seems to fit all of these stories. At some point in each of them, a character achieves clarity and, perhaps, goes on to lead the rest of their life. There are epiphanies but not many forked roads. And while White dabbles with stream-of-consciousness, these attempts are so intermittent and the effects so questionable, that it is reasonable to assert, as a reviver did yesterday in The Sydney Morning Herald, that Australian literature may not be stylistically adventurous, but it is able to reach the heights on occasion.

This book is one of them. From Harold Fazackerley's realisation that his wife is a stupid bitch, in 'A Woman's Hand', to Ella Natwick's realisation that she loves her husband unconditionally, in 'Five Twenty' (a perfect little story), from Ivy Simpson, in 'Sicilian Vespers', seeing what a dick Clark Shacklock really is, to Felicity Bannister, in 'The Night the Prowler', knowing that she didn't love her betrothed, and could never marry him, we are fully entertained.

White's great achievement, of course, is that we "see" things happen. His carefully modulated prose allows us access to other worlds. But on top of this, White also provides equanimity. There are no totally black, and no totally white, characters, here.

The main characters also tend to come packaged in sets of two, rather than in individual boxes, with the exception of 'The Night the Prowler' although here, too, we get Felicity's mother and father, and even her fiancee. 'The Night the Prowler' is different in another thing, too. Here, Felicity is young - she's just turned 21 or close to, whereas the main characters, in the majority of the other stories, are elderly.

A stunning collection by a writer who just seems to get better as time goes by.

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