TEGAN BENNETT DAYLIGHT Six Bedrooms. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
These short stories of the messiness of life unfold like a concept album.
The world of Six Bedrooms will be familiar to Gen X Sydneysiders who lived in share houses in the 1980s. There’s the Mardi Gras parade, someone playing a Style Council record and a junkie flatmate who is hardly ever seen. This book of short stories – some interconnected, some standalone – is intimate and beautifully observed. The eye is clear and unflinching, but never merciless. The stories are like a shoebox of old photographs, the ones that never made it into an album, the ones where faces or poses are in awkward transition.
But these snapshots, when they’re finally looked at again, years later, have their own charm. So young, we think now, when back then we might have thought ugh, fat or bad hair. We see that they have more to say about what life was really like than the curated collections.
Tegan Bennett Daylight takes us back to these moments – it’s mostly back, although there are stories that are set now, in these days of iPhones and Hotmail – as they were lived then, from the inside: a girl desultorily eats dry porridge oats in a too-nice flat in London while pretending to friends back home that she’s having a blast; a mother hands her daughter a tortoise instead of telling her off for getting drunk; a junkie tries to host a dinner party.
There are no big, all-encompassing shifts; just small ones, incrementally gained, satisfyingly told.
A high-school girl finally responds to taunts by holding still, letting the bully run on (he’s twisting about, singing ‘Like a Virgin’) until he runs out of steam, until he’s the one who looks like an idiot.
Then there’s the story of Elizabeth, who appears to be newly in a relationship with Ross. Another friend, Martin, is diagnosed with cancer. Elizabeth holds steady, walking through the awkwardness and awfulness. The three of them go out to lunch. Martin wears reflective glasses that reflect the healthy young couple ‘in tortured shapes’ as they eat. Later, when Martin is dying, Ross drives Elizabeth to the hospital. They have to stop and get petrol:
It was sunny – an aching light that pressed on her eyes. It was unbelievable, the people, the way they got in and out of cars, smiling and talking.
That’s exactly what it’s like when something terrible is happening to you. It seems incredible that the rest of the world is carrying on regardless. Still, the car must be filled with petrol. There will be the clunk of the bowser.
I found it easy to binge-read these stories, going from one to the next without stopping. The book is like a concept album, building in theme and tone if not in the storylines of particular characters. It’s a portrait of the messiness of life, and the inevitability of that messiness. In the end we come back to a character we’ve been following on and off, a woman whose brother left home when she was eight, whose mother was an alcoholic, whose father had a secret second family. The mother is dying in hospital, now, but there are no final revelations or reckonings. Mother and daughter simply share stories back and forth, of lives imperfectly lived.
Tegan Bennett Daylight Six Bedrooms Vintage 2015 PB 240pp $29.99
Tracy Sorensen is a writer and filmmaker. She lived in Newtown in the 1990s but is now in Bathurst, where riotous camping occurs during the yearly car races. You can visit her website here.
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