What Came Between
by Patrick Cullen
laughed. She lay back in the water and he saw how they had taken his
wife's breast. A scar ran from her armpit, curving round to the middle
of her chest, the scar tissue a crimson arc on her pale skin. Her other
breast moved freely about on the surface of the water. She drifted on
her back until another wave passed, then they were both beneath the
Reviewed by Diane Becker
This collection of inter-connected stories is set in Newcastle,
Australia. I say Australia, for the benefit of those (like me) who
didn’t know that Australia had a Newcastle. The two cities have a
history of coal production, both are northern cities and shipping
ports. The inhabitants face similar economic and social pressures, but
here the similarities end.
stories centre around the inhabitants of three terraced houses on Laman
Street. The collection follows a linear narrative that opens with Aftershocks, in which Sarah and Paul return home in the aftermath of the 1989 earthquake, and concludes with The Birth of Unknowing, that coincides with closure of the steelworks.
stories are about ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary
street, though Cullen sculpts the "ordinariness" to accentuate the
cracks, hinting at things or people that are lost or have vanished,
revealing the fissures in the mundane and everyday.
The Ground Beneath
(the second story in the collection), reveals little details
about Sarah and Paul that show tensions arising; "her pale stockings
caught on the edges of the floorboards, and a sound like static trailed
after her..." and "first pouring a little of the coffee into Paul’s cup
to clear the grounds from the spout, she filled her own cup and drank."
prose is often beautiful, and meticulously crafted. Each gesture,
action and interaction is measured out as if by seismograph; the
characters’ outer and inner lives revealed in close up detail (from The Ground Beneath);
walked home from the supermarket in the heat of the afternoon. She
carried white plastic bags; the handles, drawn thin by the weight of
groceries, had begun to cut into her fingers and she was losing her
grip.[…] She put the bags down on the litter of leaves, pulled her
straight black hair around to sit over her shoulder and ran first one
hand and then the other over the back of her neck. Her palms glistened.
She wiped them where her white cotton dress caught on her hips and she
stood there beneath the trees, flecked with light; opening and closing
her fingers she waited for the feeling to return."Much of the
drama, which includes three miscarriages, a suicide and a familial
estrangement, take place off camera. What Cullen is interested in are
the aftershocks which he orchestrates with a subtle hand, studding the
stories with symbols - falling figs, flying bats, stranded whales, a
child’s shoe - that refer back to these events or point out to the
I particularly liked The Long Drive Home
in which the lives of Lucas and his grandmother, Elsie, overlap and
flow across each other like shifting tectonic plates. Many of the
stories (such as And?) have themes of revelations and concealment; in The Comet,
Cate queues all night outside a gallery to buy a study of Halley’s
Comet, a link to her father who "…took off with some woman at the same
time as the comet passed us by."
Dust shifts literally and metaphorically through the heart of the collection (Dust and Where Things Belong) and clears to the imminent closure of the steelworks, personal closure and the approaching millenium or "end of the world".
In the final story, The Birth of Unknowing,
the inhabitants of Laman Street are drawn together on New Year's Eve as
their shared drain is breached by a fig tree's roots, flooding their
"The women came home to find the three men perched
on the rear verandah watching the excavator raise broken lengths of
pipe from the deep trench. 'We've decided,' Pam announced, 'that since
none of us has anything much planned for tonight we should all do nothing together.' Nobody disagreed."Aside from the dialogue, which at times lacks the spark essential to a short story, What Came Between is an affectionate, ambitious, multi-layered and realistic portrait of suburban Australian lives.
|Diane Becker is pretty flawed.
Nevertheless, she has short stories/poetry in The Pygmy Giant, 6S, 6S
Vol2, Metazen, flashquake and Ink, Sweat and Tears. She was longlisted
for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010 and is deputy editor of The