CARMEL BIRD My Hearts Are Your Hearts. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
Love, pain and mortality are intertwined in a collection that also takes us behind the scenes of the writing.
Carmel Bird’s new collection promises ‘twenty new stories and their origins’. Most of the stories have been published elsewhere and so are not brand new but, in this package, they offer a number of fresh ways to experience them.
The ‘origins’, as discussed in the author’s commentary, take readers ‘behind the scenes’ to see what inspired the tales – some tiny detail, a sudden memory, an overheard conversation, a crumbling purple-sequinned dress – and how these have been expanded into stories.
Perhaps the most valuable insight into the process of writing is that it bewilders and delights Bird herself. Even after many years of writing and teaching writing, she cannot really explain how it all works. She writes ‘from her own heart’s core’, but the process is also mysteriously disconnected from her. ‘Writers often say they don’t know what they are writing about, really, until they have finished’, she says. And, similarly: ‘I remember that this conversation just sprang into the story as I was writing.’
As well as the insights provided by the commentary, the collection highlights the themes that connect the stories. This undoubtedly strengthens their significance and resonance, especially when the 20 are divided into four sections that suggest a bloody intertwining of love, pain and mortality: ‘Body Parts’, ‘The Laws of Love’, ‘Sudden Death’ (the largest section), and ‘Life Saving’.
And so it proves to be, but the violence is muted, distanced, and often filtered through the wonky vision of narrators, both men and women, who stand slightly to one side and observe. Even when there is no identified narrator, the stories unfold with what Bird calls ‘the ironic conversational tone of voice I often like to use when writing about life today’.
Bird recommends that writers read their work aloud, ‘to catch the rhythm’ of the spoken work, and from one story to the next, I really did feel I was in the presence of great conversationalists – even if what they said was of dubious integrity.
For example, ‘Where the Honey Meets the Air’ is a breathless stream-of-consciousness piece that pours from the brain of narrator, Sam. He fiddles around with ‘toast all buttery and gleaming in the light of the conservatory’, pooling and glowing, and he discusses words like ‘meniscus’ and makes silly little jokes. And finally – after we find out about his wife Hannah and their baby Amber and her rich family and Hannah’s family’s huge country estate and his useless ‘job’ at a family business where he really just writes plays – eventually, after all this rush of words, he reveals that his best friend has done something appalling. And the toast and honey is for this same friend.
Bird has breathtaking control of the manner in which Sam reveals his shallowness and weakness as well as the sense of privilege that allows him to believe he will be safe behind the gates of his in-laws’ estate. Maybe he is simply in shock – but then again, perhaps he understands his friend too well
‘My Beloved Is Mine and I Am His’ is another story in which a difficult and delicate balance is achieved. Inspired by the tragic story of a decades-long affair between a young woman and a priest/bishop, it is compassionate and complicated.
Another variation on the conversational tone enlivens ‘Monkey Business’, which unfolds as if being told by someone witnessing the telescoped sequence of events sparked by a performing monkey’s escape from a child’s birthday party.
In this case, the tone adds great energy to the story, and its reproduction of the 21st century’s soundscape is another signature of this collection. Look at the opening sentences: ‘Zoop-zoop. The iPhones were out in force. The video clips were uploaded to YouTube and Facebook.’ In another story and an earlier era, the soundscape is different. ‘The Legacy of Rita Marquand’ incorporates a mother’s sewing machine – ‘k-chick-k-chick-k-chick’ – and Auntie Bee’s knitting needles: ‘tik-woo-tik-woo-tik’.
But although the ‘Monkey Business’ narrative transports the reader – zipping along with glee as things go horribly wrong for the characters – the perspective is full of sour judgement, even amusement at others’ misfortunes. Of course, it’s not necessary for readers to endorse the point of view but here, as well as in some of the other stories, the tone begins to feel overly mannered.
Sadly, facetiousness undermines the point the story makes about the monkey’s terror. The disdainful tone cannot climb to the high moral ground that is needed to make the point resonate. Meanwhile, it glides past the child whose party was ruined and who, as a result, experiences big upheavals in her little life.
In fact, in several stories, children come off badly, especially rich children, or rich teenagers (see ‘Her Voice Was Full of Money, and They Were Careless People’). But to be fair, ‘No Through Road’ does explore the damage inflicted on a lonely rich child.
Some of the stories are slight but amusing (‘My Hearts Are Your Hearts’); some deliberately use the same tone to tell wry stories about complicated ethical situations – for example, ‘Back to the Womb’. Some, like ‘The Legacy of Rita Marquand’, which is set in the 1930s, are just tragic, and the slightly sarcastic tone hits the perfect note of baffled acceptance: ‘Well, what can you do about it? For women it’s just how life is.’
In her commentary, Bird provides a wonderful description of her sleight of hand:
It has occurred to me that one of the attractions the short story has for me both as a reader and a writer is the ability the form has to provide moments of illumination, to draw together delicate strands of emotion, character, incident, theme, subject – and to do something akin to what a conjurer does with coloured silk handkerchiefs …
Her image is very apt. In the best stories of this collection – and they can be magnificent – all the delicate strands contribute to a harmonious effect; in the less strong, there is an element of arch theatricality that can grate.
But then again, there is always an element of risk in any performance – and risk is what keeps the audience engaged.
(This volume is the first in a series called ‘Fiction Plus’, initiated by publisher Spineless Wonders as ‘an indispensible resource for writers, students and anyone interested in understanding fiction from a writer’s point of view’.)
Carmel Bird My Hearts Are Your Hearts Spineless Wonders 2015 PB 218pp $27.99
Jeannette Delamoir is an ex-Queenslander and former academic. She combines her passions for writing, reading, culture and food by teaching at WEA Sydney and she blogs at mmmmFUL.
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