A man I once knew, when attending his grandchildren’s birthdays, liked to tell the following joke: ‘We are born into this life wailing, raw and angry. And then it gets worse.’
Beckett-like dyspepsia is meant to shield us from life’s disappointments, but really cradles them solitary and close. A glance at the stories within Jennifer Mills’s first collection The Rest is Weight could mistake them for the same kind of cynicism. But Mills weights her narratives with too much emotional acuity for that to be true.
From the first story, the concisely mythological ‘Look Down with Me’, Mills is concerned with characters at the edge of things, whose actions and thoughts make them central. Alfie is a mute boy on Australia’s colonial frontier, whose family houses trackers for the night:
The trackers see me, they are watching, they’re only cigarette ends under hats in the shadow but I feel their eyes on me.
Watching does not mean recognition, however. Small potent details are hidden in plain sight, their significance apparent in retrospect once an act of terrible salvation takes place. Only five pages long, ‘Look Down with Me’ packs an incredible punch, due to, not despite, its considered brevity.
The through line on many of these stories is taut until relief snaps or slackens it. In ‘Crow Season’, a man with a cuffed wrist travelling the back roads accepts a lift from an older woman:
You gonna tell me what you were in for, she asks quietly.
I tug at my sleeve, but it’s too late …
Armed robbery, I say. Three years for aggravated.
She raises an eyebrow. What with?
The woman laughs then … hands me a bobby pin.
Can you manage with that?
Maybe. I’m not much of a burglar.
Obviously. Hands up, this is a barbecue!
The characters in Mills’s stories loop around a centre. That centre may be an idea, a family, a crime, or the idea of more. In the affecting ‘The Milk in the Sky’, two women lie next to one another in the back of a ute outside a pub dance.
(Trace) rests her lips on my shoulder, light so I can hardly feel it …
Where did that come from? I hear something catching in my throat; her hand’s resting against my back now, but this is the kind of thing you learn not to mention.
For Mills, desire is a stone in our mouths, we don’t spit it out – we talk around it.
In ‘The Capital of Missing Persons’, a woman drives across half a continent towards an estranged sister. Carrying news of her mother’s death, she thinks of family as a ‘… kind of fog that won’t clear, a blind place in the mind. You navigate through it because you must, without knowing where you’re going … ‘ It is populated by ‘… runaways, selfish and childish … only loyal to our own endurance.’
In ‘Jude’, a woman waves goodbye to her mentally ill sister after a month of respite care. ‘I love you, I think. It’s a selfish prayer. It’s the way we speak to the dead.’
Mills makes an awful necessity of our connections, the distance meted out by the iron-cast measure of how we feel.
Both in setting and style, The Rest is Weight ranges widely. The prose thins then fattens. Locations range from the bright humming silences of roadhouses and servos (‘Roadhouse’, ‘Hello, Satan’) to the soon-to-be-demolished and rising buildings of China (‘Demolition’, ‘Architecture’). The mood shifts from sharp exhalations of humour to the dislocation of mental illness.
It is only in some of the speculative moments, like ‘Demolition’, that Mills loses her grip. These reach for but don’t quite grasp the precise exclusion of the extraneous that Kij Johnson achieved in her often dazzling short-story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees. But a story like ‘Moth’, a Cronulla Kafkaesque, demonstrates that Mills is very nearly there.
There’s little inevitability to The Rest is Weight. Stories fall across the page in unexpected patterns like a rope suddenly cut loose.
A number of unusually impressive short-story collections has been released by Australian writers of late (Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart, Chris Sommerville’s We Are Not The Same Anymore and Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake among them). The Rest is Weight easily stands amongst the best of them.
Jennifer Mills The Rest is Weight UQP 2012 PB 216pp $19.95
James Tierney is a freelance writer who blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye and tweets as @ViragoHaus.
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