The Best Australian Short Stories: A Ten-Year Collection

Black Inc

"'These people are wanted criminals,' the major-general said. 'We can't hold off the operation because there is an unconfirmed rumour that four or five of them have chosen to stay. There will always be fifth columnists and bleeding hearts... Our commandos will enter the zone in January to check for any sign of fox and to check that the collateral odour has cleared.'"

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

Whenever I begin to read a Best of... anything, I immediately feel my hackles rising. Are you sure? I ask the book. The best? Really? I enter defensive mode, and hold the stories to an even higher standard than my usual. Of course, this is entirely unfair to their authors, who did not, generally, ask to be viewed as The Best. And yet, this is a difficult habit for me to break. Here, not only was I faced with The Best Australian Short Stories, my defense mechanisms had to barricade themselves against A Ten-Year Collection. The Best of the decade's Best! Oh my!

I would like to be able to say at this point that this was one of the best (no pun intended) Best of... anthologies I have read, but sadly no. However, the stories that I did enjoy I absolutely loved, and I was introduced to some writers who were new to me, and what else, surely, can one ask from an anthology, best or otherwise?

The first story in the book, Camouflage, by Murray Bail, is the one that I can't get out of my head. It is a very quiet story, about a piano tuner who is drafted into the army during World War II. We follow his journey in the army while flashbacks talk us through how he got to this point. He ends up doing a menial job, painting a hanger to camlouflage it. What I found moving was the sense that in fact, despite all appearances, the army suited him:
For Banerjee, these counted among his happiest days. The last time he had been as happy was when he had been ill. For days lying in bed at home, barely conscious of his surroundings, it was as if the walls and the door were a mirage. There were no interruptions.
In contrast is Paddy O'Reilly's wonderful story, Speak to Me, which I had already enthused about when I reviewed her collection, The End of the World, in 2007. I said then:
Paddy O'Reilly has a wicked sense of humour. Who else would start a short story collection with the words: "Not all fantasy writers are geeks, I tell my friends." Is she talking about herself? wonders the reader for whom this is their first taste of O'Reilly's writing. And do I want to read a story where the writer is writing about being a writer? Let me assure you, these questions will very rapidly fade from your mind as you continue reading the first story, Speak to Me, and are capitivated by the tale of the fantasy writer and the alien that lands in her backyard and who learns to speak English from romance novels.
There are few other "fantastical" stories in this collection, which features what I take to be very "Australian" topics, such as droughts or floods, or both. Of these, it is Janette Turner Hospital's Hurricane Season that really struck me, excuse the pun. It's told in subtitled sections, which already sets it apart from most of the other stories, and is the story of a grandmother and young grandson as Hurricane Francesca strikes, and Turner Hospital's exceptional writing skills turn this into a quasi-spiritual experience:
Face to face, the woman and the child float inside a bubble of light. Elbows on the warm oak table, chins in cupped hands, eyes gleaming, they have the air of conspirators very pleased with themselves. Shadowy gold from tthe candle moves like water on their skin.
I greatly enjoyed Tom Cho's Today on Dr Phil, the shortest story in the book at three and a half pages, which has a very welcome dark humour. It begins:
Today my Auntie Lien and I are appearing on the television show of the famed pyschologist Dr Phil. The Dr Phil episode we are appearing in is titled 'What Are You Really Mad At?' and Dr Phil is asking Auntie Lien and me about how we deal with anger.
and by the end of the first page has taken us to:
"Auntie Lien suddenly says something in ancient Greek. Dr Phil looks at her blankly and she explains that was was quoting from Medea, the classic play by Euripedes....I can tell Dr Phil and the studio audience are struck by the fact that they are sharing the room with one of the finest scholars of ancient Greek drama that the world has seen."
The source of the quote at the top of this review, Fox Unpopuli, by Eva Hornung, is an excellently-told story of Tasmania's hysterical overreaction to the presence of a single fox, told with tongue lodged in cheek but leaving the reader with much to ponder about modern society. I also greatly enjoyed a number of other stories including Cate Kennedy's Cold Snap, with its excellent child narrator's voice, Delia
Falconer's The Intimacy of the Table, which appears to be treading the well-worn path of the meeting between a young man and the great poet he reveres but does so in a unique and fresh way, and Nam Le's Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, an autobiographical-seeming story of a young Vietnamese writer whose father comes to visit.

However, I must save all my superlatives for Tim Winton's breathtaking Aquifer, which affected me in a similar way to Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall. I experienced sheer joy at reading the work of a master, as well as a sense of utter disbelief at the skill with which he weaves this story, quietly, so quietly. Once again, the premise is unoriginal: a man is drawn back to his hometown when something dark from his childhood surfaces, in the swamp, but the prose is nothing less than luscious and the story is at once particular and universal, as the best short stories must be:
My parents bought a kitchen clock which seemed to cheat with time. A minute was longer some days than others. An hour beyond the fence travelled differently across our skin compared with an hour of television. I felt time turn off...I surrendered to the swamp without warning. Every wrinkle, every hollow in the landscape led to the hissing maze down there.
Winton leads you with the consummate skill of the author of 13 often award-wining books through the backstory and the present day, and the ending is pitch perfect.

While I have to conclude that I don't agree with the choice to include most of the stories published in this Best of the Decade collection, I am very glad to have been exposed to all the stories above. Our tastes are subjective, of course, and I have no doubt that other readers will enjoy a different range of stories. It is certainly a very interesting look at what is going on in the Australian literary scene, and does contain several stories that rank in my Best of 2011 list, if I am allowed my own "Best of..."!

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, is forthcoming, Spring 2012. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University. 
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

SeŠn ” FaolŠin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"

Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud "A Life on Paper"

Jonathan Papernick "There is No Other"

Edgar Bayley "The Life and Memoirs of Dr Pi"

Anthony Doerr "Memory Wall"

Carol Emswhiller "The Collected Stories"

Rachel B Glaser "Pee on Water"

Helen Constantine (trans & ed) "Paris Metro Tales"

Shannon Cain "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors"
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Authors: Murray Bail, Dorothy Johnston, Anna Krien, Patrick Cullen, Nicholas Shakespeare, Nam Le, Robert Drewe, Mandy Sayer, Paddy O’Reilly, Janette Turner Hospital, Delia Falconer, Kate Grenville, Peter Goldsworthy, Cate Kennedy, Eva Hornung, Gillian Mears, Steven Amsterdam, Tom Cho, Jessica Anderson, Campbell Mattinson, Luke Davies, Emily Ballou, Marion Halligan, Karen Hitchcock, Frank Moorhouse, Will Elliott, Amanda Lohrey, Tim Richards, Tara June Winch, Joan London, Liam Davison, Michael Meehan, Sonya Hartnett, Chloe Walker, Ryan O’Neill, Gerald Murnane and Tim Winton.