FIONA MCFARLANE The High Places. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
McFarlane explored the slipperiness of reality in her novel The Night Guest – shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin award – where the central character, Ruth, travelled into the confusion of dementia. These new stories – some of which have been published in literary magazines such as the New Yorker and the Missouri Review – explore this theme again in diverse settings and from varied viewpoints.
Most of the locations are reassuringly familiar: shopping malls, Taronga Park Zoo, the touristy districts of Rome. Situations involve courtships, parents frantically searching for children who have temporarily disappeared, adult sisters and the secrets they keep from each other, two couples awkwardly holidaying together overseas.
Other stories present less familiar locations and situations, but they too use careful details to convince the reader. A young man moves into a dingy hotel full of old-timers in ‘Violet, Violet’. Newlyweds are involved in a car accident in ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’. The ghost of Charles Darwin accompanies a scientist as he goes about his quest to free a giant squid named Mabel in ‘Good News for Modern Man’.
The connecting thread is that all the stories, having established their events and characters, draw to teasingly open, inconclusive conclusions.
In ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’, for instance, a just-married couple drives home through the countryside after their small afternoon ceremony in Cambridge. The event has been so low-key that their entire wedding party of two friends celebrates with them in a pub, and the bride, Sarah, a vet, is on-call that night.
‘The wife was driving the night they hit Mr Ronald’ is how McFarlane opens the story. After the accident, the couple is shown in that strangely disconnected state associated with shock – ’helpless in their combined ignorance’. As they puzzle about what to do, the groom, David ’… was pulling at the roots of his hair. People really do that, then, he thought, in a crisis – pull their hair.’ Sarah notices the inconsequential fact that the injured man has ‘just three first names … Ralph Walter Ronald’.
The narrative repeatedly jitters away from the accident to a veterinary clinic and, in particular, a sick (male) cat called the Queen of Sheba. The story concludes with the Queen of Sheba hunting mice in a dewy field. It is not particularly clear whether the scene is the cat’s reality, or fantasy, or if perhaps he has died and gone to cat heaven.
For me, this unsettling image provides a satisfying non-resolution to a tale in which beautifully crafted characters come adrift from their previous ways of understanding the world. McFarlane’s avoidance of neat conclusions suggests her fascination with the human psyche’s diffuse, complicated chaos, which she captures in prose that is deliciously readable.
‘Art Appreciation’ looks at another relationship, this one set in 1961 Sydney. Insurance salesman Henry Taylor lives with his mother, and money from her lottery win enables him to select a prospective wife from among the young women at the office. Ellie – an art appreciator – is depicted as intelligent and cultured, although stifled by lack of opportunity. There are hints of the couple’s incompatibility. Henry does not share her appreciation of art; he gambles on the dogs and accepts an old girlfriend’s invitation for sex.
Nevertheless, there is pathos rather than judgement in McFarlane’s presentation of the character:
After lunch, he took [Ellie] out into the garden and asked her to marry him. She answered, without hesitation, ‘Yes.’ Unsure of what to do next, he held her hand and kissed her. It was one of those days on the very edge of summer, when the light falls blankly from a strong sky and the grass is already beginning to brown. The towels on the clothesline flipped in the light wind. The kiss was not their most successful, and raising his eyes from it, Henry saw his mother’s face hovering in a window.
In other stories, McFarlane writes perceptively about social organisation, as in ‘Violet, Violet’, a yarn about a vaudevillian with an extremely old blue budgerigar. A priest with a white parrot perched on his shoulder is the main character in ‘Man and Bird’ (one of the weaker stories, if I had to pick). Religion reappears in ‘Good News for Modern Man’, featuring both Charles Darwin’s ghost and questions about Christian belief. The supernatural also infuses ‘Those Americans’, narrated by a young girl observing American soldiers in a country community during World War II:
Because they hadn’t been buried, the souls of the eight dead airmen began to cause trouble in the area. They played with ladies’ stockings, tearing tiny holes in them that ran and ran.
These stories gently echo the making-strange tactics of Australian writers during the 1970s – Peter Carey’s short stories in The Fat Man in History, Murray Bail’s Homesickness, David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future, Thomas Keneally’s A Dutiful Daughter.
But those works are exploring broad ideas of national and cultural identity, whereas McFarlane’s care with characterisation focuses more tightly on individuals. Characters are in isolated struggles with ideas of life, death, love and belief as they seek personal meaning in the confusing welter of their lives. ‘Reality’ is shown to be unreliable, vulnerable to destabilisation by shock – as for the newlyweds – or madness (‘Good News’), collective delusion (‘Those Movie People’), deceit (‘Rose Bay’), the convincing power of storytelling (‘Violet, Violet’), or – in two stories narrated by children – by their dangerously partial understanding of the world (‘Those Americans’ and ‘Cara Mia’).
In the final story, ‘The High Places’, the fragility of reality and concepts of belief, religion and mortality are gathered together. The result is an intense, hysterical tragedy – another perfectly pitched and satisfying inconclusive conclusion.
Fiona McFarlane The High Places Penguin 2016 PB 288pp $32.99
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 mmmmFULL.
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