The intensity of departures from home, Emma Neale

The City Far from Home
Margaret Sutherland,
Hodder & Stoughton (Sceptre), Auckland, 1991, $19.95

The ‘City’ in the title of Sutherland’s collection of short stories takes on various forms: an island village in Fiji, or mentions of travel to locations in Japan, England, Manila or New Guinea, but it is also a place people reach without ever abandoning their native soil. It is the point where the individual realises either the absence or the transience of love and shelter, a recognition both necessary for any increased self-awareness, but also one which leaves a trailing sadness.

The departures from home variously take the form of fantasy, marriage, new job assignments abroad, the elderly being forced to move because of ill health, or the loss, or gain, of a new family member. The stories cover a vast range of persona and locations, each one in Sutherland’s characteristically clipped, almost tart style, incorporating a wealth of ‘novelistic’ background within the structured demands of the short story. One of her most impressive skills is her ability to set up full histories for each of her characters in cunningly condensed expositions.

The stories, full of the epigrammatic, yet carefully understated sentence, are frank about sexuality, vivid and graphic in their journalistic descriptions of the harsher realities of hospital care or debilitating illness, and full of the minute detail of the domestic life of her characters who experience various forms of severance from love, intimacy with others, and the familiarity of love’s habits (even in its form of domestic routine), being the collection’s strongest definition of ‘home’.

In ‘The Rose Arbour’ a spiritually and intellectually lost academic alienates himself from his wife, surrendering to an all-engulfing despair, which at least offers some kind of certainty. His withdrawal is healed by a visitation from ghostly, dreamlike figures (characters in his own fiction?) whose own attempts at love give him the resolve to respond again to the external world. In this story, as in several others, Sutherland plays deftly with subtext; in sparse dialogue she demonstrates the way people read each other for what is not said. She captures the practised needling of people who are long familiar with each other, their attempts to get love back on track, and the awkwardness when one partner’s softening is still ill-timed for the other. Sutherland’s fiction dissects the undercurrents of relationships, cutting away beneath people’s actions to bare the motivation, and show what, consciously or not, her characters are suppressing.

In ‘Particular Friends’ knowledge of an intense, distilled loneliness becomes a nun’s professional gift as a nurse. The severance from others it forces her to experience becomes an insight she manipulates to offer comfort in times of physical pain. Sutherland has a gift for highlighting individuality in her characters without playing on quirks and idiosyncrasies or the bizarre or exotic. She precisely delineates their habits, customs and their deepest emotional and psychological responses, proving (as the main character from ‘Dark Places, Deep Regions’ discovers) that there can be the exquisitely beautiful in the apparently ordinary and that every man and woman is ‘secretly, stubbornly dreaming as they [go] about the daily round’.

Even with the most perceptive and analytical of her narrators, as in ‘Particular Friends’, Sutherland leaves clues for the readers to draw their own assessments of situations and relationships allowing them knowledge which, even with the evidence before them, the main characters may not have: showing up their conventions and limitations even as they quest for truth and understanding.

Although each of the stories could be said to pivot on the main character’s moment of recognition (‘making one of those journeys people do make, in the blink of an eye, when some passing event detaches itself from generality and plunges like a sword’), they also span out from the psychological and incorporate sharp observations of various cultures, professions and political situations.

The final two stories in the collection are particularly interesting for their exploration of similar situations. In each a mother and daughter respond to the mother’s admittance to hospital and then a retirement home. While from different viewpoints and using different characters, the stories suggest alternative versions or different truths surrounding the same basic story our lives are patterned on. The versions change according to who tells the tale, but as several of the basic narrative components are the same, they also imply the potential stories that exist within each, the different turns any life or relationship could take with the altering of one small element.

Sutherland’s fiction achieves an emotional intensity which her concise journalistic style would seem to belie, and a deep empathy for all her characters runs beneath the crisp, removed expression of all her stories.

 

Emma Neale is now following post-graduate studies in English in Britain.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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