Margaret River Press is an independent press operating between the Margaret River wine-growing area and the Centre for Stories in Perth, Western Australia. Each year the press publishes a small number of literary fiction and creative non-fiction titles. Margaret River Press also conducts an annual nation-wide short story competition, publishing the winners and short-listed entries in a digital and paperback anthology.
While the anthology is always a good read, this year’s collection – Shibboleth and Other Stories – is particularly impressive. Perhaps more than most years, the 2016 anthology embodies a small number of distinct themes, although several stories cross thematic categories. This sense of similar themes resonating back and forth among stories creates a sense of cohesion across the collection.
The responsibilities, successes and failures of parenthood are highlighted in at least half the stories, from the perspectives of parents (prospective, thwarted, actual, willing and reluctant) and children (in childhood, adolescence and adulthood). Several stories centre on tensions, fractures, slow disappointments and hard-won triumphs in romantic relationships, specifically marriage. A quarter of the stories are concerned with aging and the loss or distortion of memories, while at the other end of the age spectrum a few explore life-changing moments in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.
The winning story, ‘Shibboleth’ by Jo Riccioni, is part of a tradition in Australian short story writing that borders on ekphrasis: a well-known work by a real-world visual artist provides the organising motif for the fictive narrative. In this instance, Doris Salcedo’s installation Shibboleth at the Tate Modern is used to structure a story about two people at once terminally interdependent and irrevocably ruptured. Tension crackles in Riccioni’s deft manipulation of phrasing, and the intimate third-person narration brings the reader viscerally inside the protagonist’s jangled emotions.
Continuing the theme of famous visual artists influencing the relationships of ordinary people, runner-up Magdalena McGuire’s ‘It Used To Be A Boyd’ introduces two women at very different stages in their lives and marriages. This story casts a spell from its offbeat opening lines: ‘Most people only get married once or twice. Eight times if they’re decadent. But I get married once a week.’ The life-affirming (while slightly alarming) vitality of the Antipodean painters, including Boyd and Perceval, underpins this vivid and uplifting gem of a story.
Interestingly, this story finds a partial mirror later in the anthology, with ‘The Memory Mirror’ by Georgina Luck. In McGuire’s story, the protagonist is a female carer at an aged care home, whose act of kindness toward an elderly woman with dementia unexpectedly strengthens the carer herself. In Luck’s story, two young male paramedics attend an elderly man with dementia. The protagonist’s life is enriched as he witnesses his colleague’s sensitive, creative handling of a fraught situation.
Among other stories in the collection that deal with aging, memory loss and the grief of mental and physical deterioration are ‘Theo’ by Phil Sparrow, winner of the Southwest Prize; the poetic ‘All the Devil’s Weed Plants’ by Mikaela Castledine; and ‘Flight’ by Penny Gibson. Each of these understated works uses the minutely-observed details of everyday life to construct a shell of normality over a welling mood of quiet despair.
The third prize winner, ‘Slacklining’ by Catherine Moffat, is described by the anthology’s editor as demonstrating a ‘quintessential Australianness’. While that’s a problematic assertion, the story powerfully evokes a very specific setting – time, place, class, ethic mix, architecture, subculture – that Australians will recognise. The humour is masterfully wry, as the protagonist’s husband and friends blithely pursue their own enthusiasms and preoccupations, oblivious to the protagonist grappling alone with the implications of her unplanned pregnancy.
Other stories focussed on pregnancy and parenthood include Rachelle Rechichi’s ‘Composition’, Helen Renwick’s ‘The Treasure Box’, and Melanie Cheng’s ‘White Sparrow’. ‘Let’s Pretend’, by Mirandi Riwoe, provides an excellent example of relego: the revelation at the end compels a re-reading of the whole story, with a new and darker understanding of what is occurring and has occurred before the story opens. Laura Elvery’s ‘Acrobat’ puts the reader in the shoes of a woman who has chosen not to have children, marvelling uneasily at another woman’s commercial exploitation of her five year-old daughter. Sue Robertson’s ‘Before They Had Teeth’ compellingly portrays a young couple struggling with bereavement, the mother uncertain what she hopes to achieve through a pilgrammage to another culture’s burial site for babies. Wes Lee’s highly inventive ‘Thirsty’ is by turns enchanting and wrenching, as the father of a disabled son strives ‘To make people laugh. To see them, take care of their needs’.
From the other side of the parent-child relationship come two ‘waiting’ stories. In Emily Paull’s ‘The Sea Also Waits’, a young man waits for his mother to come up from a free-dive in the evening ocean. In Kate Glenister’s ‘A House’, a young woman waits for the paralysis of grief to pass, desperately conjuring memories from the fabric of her dead mother’s house.
Kathy George’s story ‘Teacher’, based on true events, compassionately explores a young man’s anxious need to individuate from his parents, and the wisdom that eventually leads him to benefit from his mother’s life experience. A less supportive mother-child relationship is depicted in Catherine Noske’s ‘Brown Snake’, with Maya’s mother and aunt unable to protect her from loss of innocence, or empower her towards a happier life. Similarly, in Leslie Thiele’s ‘The Boat’, childhood abandonment leaves Victor psychologically incomplete, vulnerable to an invisible but fundamental self-doubt that finally surfaces through a ‘mid-life crisis’. The protagonist in Michelle Wright’s ‘Photographs of the Missing’, a pre-teen girl, tracks her teenage cousin Jacko’s deterioration into mental illness and wonders who she should tell, seeing his mother is ‘folded tight with bitterness’ and ‘it would cause her too much grief’.
Many of the stories mentioned above implicate the protagonist’s romantic relationships within the central tension. Others place these relationships front and centre. Chloe Wilson’s ‘The Drydown’ and Susan McCreery’s ‘Night Shift’ explicitly examine the reciprocal impacts of low self-confidence and an undermining partner on the female protagonist’s well-being. Conversely, Julie Kearney’s ‘A Fork In the Path’ features a male protagonist so undermined by his wife, who sees him as ‘timid’ and ‘a pathetic wimp’, that he almost fails to muster the courage to respond to a desperate plea for help.
‘Le Farfalle’, by Cassie Hamer, brings a touch of magic realism to an acutely-located moment of first love: young Joe, ‘dago’ child of Italian immigrants who is barely tolerated by his schoolmates in 1950s Australia, bonds with fresh-off-the-boat Francesca over Joe’s grandfather’s butterfly collection.
Shibboleth and Other Stories will reward readers and students of the short story form. It is available here: http://www.margaretriverpress.com/shop/new-releases/shibboleth-and-other-stories-ed-laurie-steed/