Monday, 12 November 2018

Book review: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, Jen Campbell (2017)

In ‘Bright White Hearts’, one of the stories in this book, there is the statement, which struck me as being both true and somehow emblematic of the whole collection. It went, “We have an obsession with things just out of our reach.”

When I was growing up I lived in a prosperous part of Sydney, one surrounded by the waters of the city’s peerless harbour. We used to go down to the beach on Saturday mornings and rig up our Sabot and race it on Watsons Bay. Later, when I had a boat of my own, a Laser, I would go down to the garden and put it onto the beach and rig it up and sail it in races with other boys from my school, which had a boathouse on the edge of Rose Bay. On some weekends, I would sail my boat as far as the Opera House and the Quay, where the Harbour Bridge spans the water transporting traffic and trains from one side to the other of the busy metropolis. Just for a lark.

Nestled just to the west of the bridge on the north shore of the harbour sat Luna Park, a resort for all the children of the city. When we went there we met with people who came from distant parts of the metropolis. There were crazy mirrors that distorted your body when you looked at your reflection in them. There were long, steep slides you rode down on hessian sacks until you bumped into the barriers set up at the bottom and came to a stop. There was a rotating cylinder that would spin so fast you would stick to its sides as the floor dropped away beneath your feet. There was a rotating disc you tried to cling to as it spun faster and faster until all the children had been ejected by centrifugal force into the barriers around the outside. There was a ride that had carriages that went fast and took the turns at speed, making you cry out in fear. In the food stalls they sold cheap, fatty food for inflated prices. Apart from the Royal Easter Show and before we went to university, it was one of the only opportunities that us boys had to meet people who grew up in different communities from ours.

There was one other time when we ventured out beyond the confines of our usual beat. My brother took me with him to a confab at the University of New South Wales where young people came together to play the game Dungeons and Dragons. We stayed there through the night and ended up, early in the morning, in the city at a pool parlour on George Street. I played one game against a guy who bet he could beat me, and I won. Before the second game could start, we had called dad and he came to pick us up in his car. On the drive home he didn’t say much but looking back it is clear that he was glad to find us both safe and sound.

In the scope of their ambition, Campbell’s stories have something of the sideshow tout, but the tone is elevated and profound at the same time. The themes are such things as love, death, fear, darkness, light, beauty, innocence, eternity. Anyone can enjoy. Anyone can understand. Not just people like you. The demos itself.

In this collection, you will find stories that are animated by tropes stolen from tabloid magazines but the way that they are told brings you closer to yourself and to humanity, all at the same time. “Whimsical,” is a word you might casually pick out of the ether to describe Campbell’s stories to someone you had just met at a party. “Odd. Unsettling. Strange.” But there is also a deep wisdom embedded in them and it is one which revives memories from childhood and memories, from a time beyond death, that dwell in the reaches of narrative that run like an illustrated border around the known universe.

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