Short stories as selfless, Christine Johnston

The Red Queen
Gemma Bowker-Wright
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864739209

Empty Bones and Other Stories
Breton Dukes
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864739186

The Red Queen and Empty Bones, two short story collections by new writers, while having much in common, offer individual visions of the contemporary world. The Red Queen is Gemma Bowker-Wright’s first book, and the latter publication is Breton Dukes’s second. (Bird North appeared in 2011 to some acclaim.) These authors certainly aren’t novices. Both are graduates of the International Institute of Modern Letters and their books emanate from Victoria University Press. One cover gets the Dylan Horrocks treatment, while the other presents a softer image – a female silhouette in a winter scene. Breton Dukes and Gemma Bowker-Wright are members of the new generation of short story practitioners, writing with confidence, style and flashes of brilliance. They produce stories of about 20 pages in length, but Dukes’s collection includes one longer work that might be termed a novella.

Bowker-Wright’s themes are mainly, but not exclusively, the issues of today’s young people – reflections on growing up, university, flatmates, old friends, lovers and the quest for satisfying work. Family relationships feature in her stories as they do in Dukes’s, where sons and fathers go head-to-head and brothers (and step-brothers) are fierce rivals. But often fathers are absent or turn out to be infrequent and unsatisfactory visitors. In Bowker-Wright’s “Missing”, it is Nathan’s and Rachel’s mother who abandoned her husband and children, leaving them scarred and insecure. Patterns are poised to repeat themselves.

The content is contemporary, the protagonists 20- to 30-somethings, still nursing childhood insecurities and rivalries, seemingly reluctant to embrace adulthood.

Julia, in Bowker-Wright’s “The Sanctuary”, exclaims: “Who has these conversations? I’m twenty-six for God’s sake. (….) This is not what people are supposed to talk about when they’re twenty-six. It’s a tragedy.”

By the end of “The Red Queen”, Alice, about to move in with her wealthy boyfriend, declares: “Anyway it’s what people do next, isn’t it?”

Dukes’s Rachel, in “A Lonely Road”, is living with a man she doesn’t love. “Life’s suddenly so serious – all he does is work.”

Their parents have failed them, or become irrelevant. These aren’t always likeable characters, but Bowker-Wright has more level-headed ones to counter those who shun grown-up status. Some of her stories also deal impressively with older people’s lives – “Katherine” being her most affecting.

There is a gritty realism about the writing – death and loss aren’t far away. Bowker-Wright has the grim reaper positioned offstage, present in the photo of a dead baby and in the brief encounter with the tramper who subsequently goes missing. A mother’s suicide is mentioned almost in passing: “Erin was adopted by Viv and Mick when she was three, after her mother drove off a bridge and her father started to drink.”

In Dukes’s writing, death is a more ubiquitous and visceral presence. Ray almost drowns in the first story. Protagonists are jumpy and inclined to violent reactions, especially after heavy drinking. Knives and guns aren’t far away and there is plenty of tension. Rachel (“A Lonely Road”) imagines the blade “between her ribs, the lining of her lung giving under the point of her paring knife, alveoli exploding like fish eggs.” Gavin, in “Animals”, covets the old man’s gun and his car. What might he do to acquire them?

Both authors write sparingly but with a vivid touch. Detail contributes authenticity, as when Bowker-Wright’s Rachel (“Missing”) remembers her mother putting on make-up. The memory is magical and revealing of their characters: “‘That’s my face done,’ said her mother when she was finished. Then she made a small sighing sound, her shoulders rising and falling and her throat moving up and down. ‘I’ve got my daytime face on.’”

Bowker-Wright incorporates science into most of the stories in ways that sometimes enrich the story and sometimes don’t. “Endangered” draws the reader’s attention to the plight of the kakapo, but why? Erin “wonders what extinct species her children will be into. If she and Jeremy have children, that is.” Erin, in fact, has no interest in children and can’t even remember the names of her nephews and nieces.

Among her characters we find a radio interviewer, a biology lecturer, a glaciologist – their occupations define them and limit them. How much should we read into the fact that Ann is a weather-forecaster and Lew a museum curator? Their neighbour, Ruth, sees auras and ghosts and seems like a type, set up as a foil to the rational Ann and Lew.

Sometimes I found the detail in Dukes’s stories weighing down the narrative and going nowhere. These sentences introduce Chris, an important character in “Empty Bones”:

Chris watched a woman in a white blouse carry a tray with a glass on it past the spa, the pool, and the sunloungers, to one of the white tables that were set with chairs and umbrellas at the end of the hotel’s pool complex. Sitting there in a singlet and sunglasses, a man was reading a newspaper.

 

This reader couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

One of the pleasures to be found in these collections is the sense of place. Both Bowker-Wright and Dukes are rooted in their New Zealand locations and evoke a range of geographic settings. Sometimes two locations are present in one story – the Far North and the Deep South, Wellington and smaller provincial towns, and the city versus the crib/bach environment. Descriptions of landscape are minimal but effective:

You couldn’t see the harbour from their house, but from this part of the road you could see the claws of land that made its entrance, its sand bars at low tide, its deep, steady blue at high tide, its pylons and narrow channel. (“A Lonely Road”)

 

“Empty Bones” is Dukes’s longest and most ambitious story, switching between the 1960s love story of Ian and Elizabeth and the present day family reunion of grown-up children at the Northland crib. The Ian and Elizabeth strand has a nostalgic charm that contrasts with the awkward interactions and bizarre couplings of their offspring.

While siblings are striving to impress one another, a rage bubbles under the surface of family relations. Hugs and kisses are notable by their absences. When Chris meets his sister after two years he asks himself: “Should he hug her? Or shake hands? Kissing didn’t seem right.” On the contrary, they come close to killing each other on a couple of occasions. There’s a lot of heavy drinking and some excessive eating as well, but no one seems to be discovering lost intimacy or even having a particularly good time. Throughout it all there is Kaile, the outsider – an unlikely presence with her gym obsession and her implants.

The finale, “a year later”, sees the family gathering around Kaile as she goes into labour. It seems highly improbable on all fronts. We are left wondering. Is Ian dying? Does Ryan have cancer? Dukes has a penchant for the enigmatic ending.

Dukes and Bowker-Wright have similar strengths – boldness, black humour, dialogue that rings true but demonstrates people talking past each other, and a respect for the unpalatable realities of life. Characters are exposed as vulnerable and self-serving. There are moments of tenderness, even love; “On the Radio” brings us attraction, desire and heartbreak, but mostly characters are grudging and inarticulate about their feelings. Dukes’s men want to cut loose when things get rough: “At dawn, he’d pack and set out. She could figure her own way home.”

These stories are the “selfies” of a generation – unflattering, perhaps, but bearing the stamp of authenticity.

 

Christine Johnston is a Dunedin reviewer.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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