Thinly sliced, Rebecca Lovell-Smith

the honey suckers
Victoria McHalick
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1869503805

Extreme Weather Events
Tim Jones
HeadworX, $19.95,
ISBN 0473073870

These are slight books, two debut collections of New Zealand short fiction which, sandwiched between heavier weightier tomes, would scarcely be noticed. Next to louder beasts like Black Oxen, the quiet hum of the honey suckers would be only faintly audible. Extreme Weather Events, though noisier, would barely feature on the meteorology map of the literary world.

They are small books, it’s true, each as thin as a slice of bread, each weighing less than half a pound of butter. There are 15 stories in Victoria McHalick’s the honey suckers; a mere dozen in Tim Jones’s Extreme Weather Events. But size and volume are seldom accurate indicators of quality.

Size is, however, a good practical measure. I like books the size of the honey suckers. I can put them in my bag and carry them around with me, company for those times when real live human friends aren’t available. I read “tiramisu” with a pot of tea and a lamington in a coffee lounge one morning. “Where to, luv?” was my companion on a long bus-ride home.

Actually, a bus is the perfect vehicle for the honey suckers because reading these stories is a bit like sitting cosily on a bus home through the suburbs on a wet Wednesday afternoon. You catch glimpses of other people’s lives through the net-curtained windows of the houses passing by. You study the man sitting up the front and wonder why his hand is bandaged, who chose his ill-fitting shirt, how he spends his days. You listen to the two people gossiping about the odd behaviour of their neighbour, about the scandal at the office party, and the terrible fate of a husband’s elderly aunt, poor dear.

These stories have that same gossipy feeling. They are stories of people you feel you might know. Two sisters on OE, working and living and falling in love in a London pub. The awkward youth who spends his first week’s pay on a large bottle of perfume for his mother. The lonely middle-aged woman obsessed with the previous occupant of her flat. The woman who married the right man for the wrong reasons (or the wrong man for the right reasons) and is “almost certain she felt happy on her wedding day. She has the photograph to prove it.”

They are distinctly New Zealand stories crammed with the visual vernacular of corrugated iron roofs and pink painted baches, Irvine’s potato-topped savouries and platefuls of home-made melting moments. McHalick uses the familiar, the domestic, the ordinary, to draw the reader into the lives of her characters. She shows the humour that exists in even the most awful situations, and the terrifying bleakness that lies behind the seeming absurdity of people’s lives.

In “manfall”, a man fixing his roof daydreams about times spent with a past lover, and wonders why his life now seems so bland “though there’s nothing really wrong with it”. And “why violet dusts” is the story of an elderly woman, who meticulously cleans her house to fill in the hours between her children’s visits. She tries to understand how her life has ended up that way:

They say time speeds up the older you get. You remember when you were a child. There was always something unbearable about Boxing Day. The excruciating knowledge that you had to wait a-whole-nother year.

Now you blink and it’s November and that’s as good as Christmas anyway.

Blink.

November.

But some time goes slowly. You sit down and wait for the minutes to pass. The hours take forever. They stretch out so the six o’clock news seems a lifetime wait since breakfast. But the years. Blink.

Blink. Blink.

 

From the book’s elegant design through to the clever story titles and McHalick’s deceptively simple writing style, this book has been thoughtfully crafted. A small book, yes, but perfectly formed.

Smaller still, and half the weight, is Extreme Weather Events, twelve stories about the weather by Tim Jones. This book fits easily into a large pocket, so you really can “always take the weather with you”.

Like McHalick, Jones uses local elements: a flat in St Albans, op-shops in Dunedin, a tourist centre in New Plymouth. And what could be a more New Zealand fixation than the weather (for surely we have produced more songs per capita about this topic than any other nation)? But the New Zealand elements are only reference points, as Jones takes us on unexpected twisted journeys into parallel universes and cyberspace, to the distant past and the near future.

In one story, Jones speculates on the role New Zealanders will play in space, “herding brown dwarfs together to make new suns”. There is a man whose obsession with maps literally takes over his life, and a party of tourists visiting a frozen moment in time in an ordinary city street. These are stories of people surviving in extreme conditions; intriguing tales of adventure, imagination, science fiction and, in one case, romance, with a not-so-classic love triangle of man, woman and volcano.

There is even a piece of what appears to be straight, objective journalism. Although set in the near future, “The New Land” is a disturbingly accurate and very funny portrait of the political sensibilities of modern New Zealand:

The Prime Minister announced that an international search would be launched for the land’s naming rights sponsor. Major corporates, breweries, and communications companies had already expressed interest. On a less positive note, plans by the Tourism Board to brand the new land as an eco-tourism destination came under sustained attack by environmental groups.

 

Like the local weather, Extreme Weather Events is choppy and unpredictable, changing dramatically in style, tone, length and subject matter from one story to the next, consistent only in its inconsistency. This can make for an unsatisfying read, but it did leave me wanting to read more by this author.

Two slight, but by no means insignificant, debut collections of short stories by local authors. Small these books may be, but they nevertheless manage to encompass the width and depth, and demonstrate the diversity of short fiction being produced in New Zealand today.

 

Rebecca Lovell-Smith is a Christchurch writer and reviewer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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