Australian fiction, Australian short stories, Australian women's writing, The Household Guide to Dying
The author of The Household Guide to Dying delivers a collection of short stories infused with hope.
Debra Adelaide is one of those rare writers who is able to document everyday lives with wit, pathos and vivacity. She presents us with properly rounded characters – whether a desperately poor single mother, a middle-aged woman taking a second chance on love or a Sudanese refugee – and she tells their stories with compassion and insight. It is the skill of these portrayals that allows Adelaide to infuse each story in Letter to George Clooney with hope: for love, for success, for happiness; for a better life.
The best stories in the collection are those that shine with this hope and let Adelaide get inside the skin of people who are looking for a better life: ‘Virgin Bones’, ‘The Form of Solemnisation of Matrimony’ and the title story, ‘Letter to George Clooney’. In ‘Letter to George Clooney’, Sudanese refugee Miriam recounts her flight from the war in her homeland and her arrival in country Victoria in a letter to the Hollywood star, prompted by the gossip magazines she spots in the supermarket. Miriam’s story is brutal and bleak and Adelaide does not shy away from portraying the dark moments but she skilfully contrasts them with the delight Miriam finds in the aisles of her local supermarket and in her daughter, Essa:
Sometimes in the supermarket I buy nothing much. It is enough to roam with my string bag (old habits, George) and gaze at the labels. I might pick up an avocado and press to test its ripeness, or sniff the base of a pineapple to gauge the level of its sweetness, but really I am just pretending and sometimes I return home with only a loaf of bread and the milk. The first time, I could buy nothing.
Lucille, the heroine of ‘The Form of Solemnisation of Matrimony’, is preparing to marry the same man who left her at the altar more than twenty years earlier. Lucille doesn’t want much fuss, knowing that most of the guests expect the groom to do a runner for a second time – as does Lucille herself. The ceremony is in the converted church that houses her shop and home and as the wedding guests arrive, the author does a wonderful job of capturing Lucille’s worry and her ways of marking time while she waits:
She circled around refilling glasses and chatting to the guests, spending thirty seconds, a minute, with each before moving on, all the while trying not to think and therefore thinking too hard on it. Standing over near the red-gum counter, her great-aunt Lucy, for whom she was named, raised an eyebrow meaningfully.
‘Virgin Bones’ is a standout story, too, concerning a poor family living in a rich family’s crypt in return for some housekeeping duties, including polishing the bones of the dear departed. Here the author shows us their determination and ingenuity through the father’s sense of purpose in solving the mystery of Our Flower in Heaven’s missing bone and endeavouring to improve the lot of his family.
But one of the attractions of the short story to both writers and readers is the opportunities the form allows for experimentation with structure, voice and narrative and for all Debra Adelaide’s skill at characterisation and scene setting, there is such similarity between the narrative voices and structure of this collection’s pieces that some of the less successful stories bleed into one another. It’s a shame, because there are stories with truly powerful political messages in this collection – ‘Airlock’ and ‘The Moon Will Do’, along with the title story – as well as lovely considerations of the state of modern romance – ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ and ‘Chance’ – that almost fade into the background for a want of a sharper treatment. This lack of adventure is particularly apparent in the stories that concentrate on writing and writers, like ‘Writing [in] the New Millennium’, about a writers’ conference, and ‘Glory in the Flower’, about a visiting author who leads a poetry master class, which almost feel as though they could have been written by anyone who has attended a similar event.
This is not to say Letter to George Clooney isn’t an engaging and enjoyable read; there are many delights to be found within its pages, the aforementioned wit and pathos among them. Debra Adelaide is one of the best writers in Australia and this collection of short stories admirably displays her considerable talents.
Debra Adelaide Letter to George Clooney Picador 2013 304pp PB $24.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com
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