Thursday, 17 October 2019

Book review: This Taste for Silence, Amanda O’Callaghan (2019)

I found three different kinds of short story in this wonderful collection. The first kind is almost like a prose-poem, barely two or three pages long and containing an embryo, or just the outlines, of a drama. There is a protagonist, as in ‘The Mohair Coat’, which is about a woman who travels back to England with a coat her dead mother had owned. Or, as in ‘The News’, a woman, who remains unnamed, who is at a party when something happens that is not described in any detail but that affects her deeply. The poetry is all in the language.

With the internet and social media, we have seen the emergence of short pieces of poetry or prose, sometimes in the form of a thread. On Twitter, a “thread” is a continuous narrative where a person responds to each tweet they post with a new one, making a kind of string where you can read each tweet in the sequence they were posted in. Threads can go for a long time or they can be short, but they are very common and can be used to deliver longer narratives to an audience.

And then there are even shorter “stories” in the form of memes, such as one that appeared in my feed on 29 September at 8am Sydney time when Lacey London, a British author with over 113,000 followers, tweeted, “In six words or fewer, write a story about this photo...” the tweet came with this image (see below). I responded, “Where’s the cradle …?” but the tweet had had over 1000 replies, so I was just one of many who thought the proposition fun.

While O’Callaghan’s very-short short stories are emblematic of a trend where people value brevity and concision, they are so good, and the language is so wonderful, that the example given above might appear a tad out-of-place. I’m not suggesting for a moment that O’Callaghan’s short stories are like cat memes. I include this example just to make a point about how, nowadays, we are trying out new types of writing as the new media percolate through society and help us to organise our lives.

The second kind of story in her collection is a longer piece that is a fully-fledged narrative containing a protagonist and secondary characters. There are a number of this type of story in the book. Once again, the language is deeply poetic and nuanced and lovely. 

One of the stories in this category is ‘New Skins’ about an elderly couple living in the suburbs of a city in Australia who are visited often by Vincent, the son, aged about 11 years, of the neighbours who live next door. Vincent likes to play with the couple’s dog, April. Des, the old man, is indulgent and his wife, Rosemary, has trouble sleeping. She is often up late at night and sometimes at such times notices the lights on in the house next door. She talks about it with Des but they do nothing, not wanting to intrude. Vincent’s father, Teddy, had been declared drowned after saving a girl who had gotten in trouble on a boat in a river. Then, one night when she is awake in her house, Rosemary realises something that would have eluded her during the day. 

As you read this type of story that O’Callaghan has devised, you are filled with pleasure, and it’s not only because of the language the narrative is cloaked in. As with the first type of story, it is also about the suspense. Always, you are trying to work out who is talking, the relationships between the characters, and the nature of the events that are taking place. Often crime is involved. There is hatred and fear, there is cowardice and evil. Within each story there are worlds and they ring true with a clarity that is rare.

The theme of cultural and political legacy and of ancient wrongs committed against indigenous people is touched on in two of the stories, in ‘A Widow’s Snow’ (the story that opens the collection), and in ‘The Memory Bones’. There is another theme, that of history itself, which emerges in the first of these stories (Roger, Maureen’s new beau, runs an antiques store) and in the third type of story in the collection. 

This third category of story in the collection has only one story in it. I have classified this story, titled ‘The Painting’, in this way because it is significantly longer than the stories I have talked about above. But it is also strongly self-referential or, to put it another way, it is metatextual. Coming at the end of the collection, it furthermore functions as a kind of punctuation mark for the whole, summing up the entirety of themes that the book retails in. 

It is about a man named Eddie. His mother dies – and this part of the story is particularly fine in its execution, the moment when life departs – and, as a result, he inherits a house. But Eddie’s mother also gives him a painting before she passes away. He takes the painting to Frank, his local pawnbroker in Brooklyn, and gets a feeling during the ensuing conversation – more of O’Callaghan’s clever writing here – that the thing is worth more money than he thought it had been before the conversation took place. So then he takes it to an art gallery, a place where he had tried, on an earlier occasion, to offload some old WWI medals that had been given posthumously to his great-uncle Ivan. The gallery owner, Walter, had not been interested in the medals and now, seeing the old painting, also declines to deal. Then things become strange when Eddie, one day sitting at home, with the painting hanging on the wall, sees something he had not seen before. 

This story is complicated by the existence of a sub-narrative, printed in italics, about the man who painted the work of art. I won’t spoil the story by telling anything more about it but it deals in an inventive way with our current (seeming) obsession with the past and with the way that we use the past to define who we are. We are, I think the author is suggesting, shackled to the past and may therefore never be entirely free. Perhaps, therefore, our taste for silence. We love our chains too much to take them off.

However strong the themes employed in this book are – and they are very strong – and however entertaining the plot of each story, it is the writing that stood out for me for its ability to adequately render the most ephemeral as well as the most concrete thing. The writing is both flexible and robust, comfortable and stimulating, and it is given the task of conveying profound truths.

While silence is often used to hide the past, ‘The Painting’ suggests that we are, nowadays, almost overwhelmed by the vestiges of history in one form or another. How to achieve authenticity, to deal fairly with each other, and to live in peace and harmony: such questions lie hidden within the matrices of ideas that emerge in O’Callaghan’s marvellous book. We must always remember – for otherwise we can repeat the mistakes of the past – but it is also important to forgive and to live with an open heart. Salvation is reached by negotiating a paradox.

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