All the Little Things That We Lose
 by Deborah Sheldon

Skive Magazine Press
2010, Paperback
First collection

Deborah Sheldon lives in Melbourne, Australia and has been a professional writer for 24 years. Her television scriptwriting credits include State Coroner, Australia’s Most Wanted and Neighbours. She has also written features and non-fiction books. All the Little Things That We Lose is her first book of fiction.

Read an interview with deborah Sheldon

"She slaps Joey again between his shoulder blades. His feet jerk and his abdominal muscles clench weakly against her knee. If she manages to dislodge the grated carrot, this will become a family story repeated often throughout the years…And if her attempts don’t work, Caroline can see her life as an empty, aching horror, stretching out for year after unbearable year, and she slaps him again. That makes five slaps. One more and she will turn him on his back, cradling her baby within the curl of her left arm."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

A couple of stories into All the Little Things That We Lose and I felt that I was beginning to orientate myself in Deborah Sheldon’s world. This was an Australia I caught a glimpse of in a long-ago visit: the everylands of suburbia – think Neighbours minus the gloss and comfort (Sheldon is a scriptwriter who’s worked on the show) – thinning out to the long, dull emptinesses between towns, where any new person may be a threat. Against these flat, often banal backdrops small details take on significance and the slightest gesture can be loaded with menace.

I was getting a taste for this unsettling landscape. And then I read Counting the Steps From One Through Five, a spare, coruscating account of Caroline tIrying to revive her son as he chokes on a piece of carrot. The writing is unadorned and unsensational and in slightly over two pages, Sheldon gives place, character and sky-high stakes, tapping directly into a primal need, mother love, and its appalling opposite: mother loss. Part of the effect is achieved through the patterning of tenses – we are in the present, yet even at this moment of high drama Caroline remembers where she first learned CPR, and imagines possible futures spiraling away from this moment. I finished this story through tears, then had to close the book and take several breaths to try to find a way back out of Sheldon’s world. Power indeed.

Sheldon specialises in the little moments that reveal the chaos and terror beneath. Real life, even in suburbia is only skin deep: blink and there may be plagues of flies or a ghost boy or a man with a gun. Stories such as We Have What You Want and Man with a Suitcase pull off a violent, almost cartoonish, abruptness – think Flannery O' Connor or Ernest Hemingway. What saves them from farce is the dense subtext of unanswered questions that Sheldon weaves into her set ups, plus spare, ungarnished descriptions – "Sarah’s cheekbone gave way with a loud pop" – more horrifying than any laboured drawing of physical agony.

As well as violence in the pieces themselves, the scale between each story keeps changing, making the collection interestingly unpredictable. To choose a run of five, consecutive stories from the middle of the book, The Cash Cow takes the reader on a blackly comic and also terrifying whistlestop tour of gangland underworld. This then lurches into the quiet, domestic tragedy of Waiting for the Huntsman, where Natalie – staying with unfamiliar family while her mother is in hospital – stares terrified at a spider lurking in "the space in the roof…thick with darkness". Following this small scale domestic drama comes Baggage, where the breakdown of Afrodite’s marriage is enacted by a biblical flood that "pulled back into the waterway like an octopus into its cave, sucking and slurping at Afrodite’s van and Ruth’s hatchback and dragging both over the buckled fence and down the grassy bank". Then to Lunch at the Trout Farm, where a family fishing outing is infused with domestic disharmony and the lack of tinfoil for a barbecue may be the end of a marriage. The run of five finishes with Flight Path, perhaps the strangest story in this collection: two survivors of plane wreck wake in the middle of a salt plain – but who are these people and what has happened to them? There was something of Samuel Beckett or Flann O'Brien in the revelation of horror here, a truly chilling little piece.

Occasionally, perhaps inevitably, the edge of emotion becomes blunted – though the skilful organisation of the collection meant this happened only rarely. A couple of stories, Parrots and Pelicans springs to mind, felt a beat or so light, especially towards the end. But this feels carping in stories lined with the potential violence and everyday horror that pulses beneath the most quotidian of lives.

Read a story from this collection in Cottonmouth (PDF)

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson ’s short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and, among others. She is putting the final polish on her novel, The Examined Life, before subbing to agents and trying her hand at a radio play.
Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"
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