Having Cried Wolf
 by Gretchen Shirm

Affirm Press
First Collection Awards: shortlisted, Award for New Writing in NSW Premier's Literary Awards

"It’s funny the way the good things in life, when they come, always seem to come together, in a hurry, like soldier crabs marching across the sand while the tide is out. And then they retreat just as fast."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

This collection of stories inhabits the beaches and cul-de-sacs of a fictional Australian town, Kinsale, where two friends Grace and Alice grew up, drifted apart and then are drawn back together.

It is not quite a "novel in short stories", more a cycle of interconnected stories that starts and ends with these two friends, with stories in between that give brief glimpses into the lives of friends, family, neighbours and strangers who have a link to this backwater town. There is no over-arching narrative thread between stories. Each story is distinct and stands alone. But we revisit certain characters and tragic events cross over into the lives of others. This is achieved in a natural way, not always obvious, particularly at the beginning of stories, and allows us to slowly piece together a picture of life in Kinsale, with its slow tides, sudden storms and every day tragedies.

Grace’s husband is a soldier, who is sent to war. Alice is separating from her husband. They seem to be the main characters in the collection, yet they are not in most of the stories. We also meet Tracee, a counselor who covers up for her son when he has an accident. Lizzie takes her cousin Mandy for a swim at the waterhole. Chris goes to see a counselor with his wife, and finds it hard to confront a difficult truth.

There are many tragedies occurring in these pages, particularly bereavement, loss and separation, all experienced in different ways. Most of the time, loss is explored from a distance, by an observer, a passerby, a friend or family member who is witnessing or affected by someone else’s struggle. Sometimes the tragedy has just happened, other times the story explores the aftermath, weeks or years later.

The power, perhaps, in this collection, is that tragedy is approached in very ordinary ways, through the scraping of knives against plates as two people eat dinner in the dark, or someone fiddling with the microwave. People drive home, or go shopping, or tidy the house. Mostly, people are getting on with the everyday business of life, quite often associated with eating, or as it is described in one story, ‘the silent ritual of dinner’. By focusing on the ordinary details of people’s lives, the struggles, difficulties, pains, or sorrows, are illuminated.

The emotions are more visible in the tides, rains, shifts of light that are closely observed throughout the collection. As though the town feels the pains as much as people do, or by observing the changes in landscape, such as a beached fishing boat, the repressed or hidden emotions are drawn to the surface.

Mostly, this is skillfully done, with attention being paid to the smallest of details bringing the landscape, emotion and experience so closely aligned that much can be left unsaid.

These stories are not wrapped up tightly at the end. This writer has a light touch, not dwelling or leaving us with difficult or dark emotions, but instead giving us a sense of life moving on. The stories shift around in time, people leave Kinsale and come back, the tides keep changing. This gives an optimistic feel to the collection. The only drawback is this may imply a simplicity which is often not the case in these kinds of loss.

But, overall, this is a strong collection of stories. There is a real pleasure in the writing: the precise language; the sensory details, particularly of the sea; the subtle power in how the writer approaches the everyday struggles of a community who are isolated and connected in their experiences and grief.

Read a story from this collection on Kobobooks.com

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone and This Road We’re On (Flax Books), Transmission, Ouroboros Review, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, Cake, and Pank magazine.

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

Ailsa Cox "The Real Louise"

Mary Gaitskill "Don't Cry"

Lori Ostlund The Bigness of the World"

"The House of Your Dream"

Ethel Rohan "Cut Through The Bone"

Alex Epstein "Blue Has No South"

Susannah Rickards "Hot Kitchen Snow"
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Gretchen Shirm was born in 1979, and currently lives in Sydney where she works as a lawyer. In 2009, Gretchen received the D.J. O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship for Emergent Writers. She holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. Her fiction has been published in numerous literary journals.

Read an interview with Gretchen Shirm