LUCY DURNEEN Wild Gestures. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
Durneen has a sharp eye for the meanings woven into the stories of past, present and future.
Lucy Durneen teaches writing in Plymouth, England. In 2014 she went to the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna. In her very long list of Acknowledgements at the back of Wild Gestures, she identifies the conference as a key event in the creation of this collection. Acknowledgement pages, evidence of the power of networking in publishing today, deserve a thesis – no doubt creative writing courses have this matter in hand. There is something fascinating in the international links between the British author with a Northern Irish surname, the Vienna conference, and the Australian publisher with its northern hemisphere focus.
The collection is composed of 16 stories and one opening poem referencing Icarus, warning the reader that the sensibility of the book is possibly going to be that of a brave woman drowning. The feminine emphasis is clearly signalled by the cover illustration of a tree in mirror image resembling a ‘mindfulness’ colouring book. The text throughout is ornamented with little leaves like hearts:
The heart here is a horrifying motif. When the man had raped the mermaid and chopped her up, he stood on the beach ‘her heart held tight in his palm like the coin in a magic trick while the waves turned red with blood’.
My impulse was to jump from the poem to the last paragraph of the final story, and the ultimate sentence was an unsettling one: ‘… I have never known enough of anybody to have a story, even a bad one, to tell.’ I quickly went to the middle of the book where I found an enticing title: ‘In Response to Your Call’ – a letter from a depressed woman in Paris to a man possibly in New York. By chance he rang her at 3 am, a call she missed. Once this man told the woman that ‘all that stands between the moment of disaster and the collapse of humanity is seven days’.
Bibilical narratives are never far away, with careful gestures towards philosophers – Baudrillard, Descartes, and so on. ‘This is Eden’ is set in a kind of prison for those who have committed ‘crimes against humanity’. Cassandra, Penelope and Tiresias are there. The narrator, Eve, tells her reader that a shift of one degree in the earth’s axis could mean mass extinction – a reminder of the seven days of ‘In Response to Your Call’. On day release the prisoners go to the Flaming Sword motel to play nasty games of chance. There are Penelope, Adam, Eve, and a serpent-man, violently seductive, with black gloves. The waitress is a serpent deity. All decisions, serpent-man says, are based on chance, maybe echoing Baudrillard. Narrator Eve, after all her vivid moments and memories, finds what she believes is knowledge, and the last line is sensational in a number of ways: ‘I bite and I bite and I bite’.
Much of the prose is poetic, musical and textured, as characters chart their way, often in their imagination, through the dark territories and terrors of everyday life. In a cancer hospital set somewhere among wheatfields, a woman observes:
At night you can hear the wheat, like a song, like the sea. You hear the hum of ancient glacial planes beneath long barrows.
‘The Smallest of Things’ is one of my favourites – from the humdrum everyday ramblings of a boring woman on a bus emerges a sensation ‘like you were breathing water, like a reminder we shouldn’t have left the ocean’. This is emblematic of what the collection does – it can flick readers from vivid scenes of everyday life to the sight of the endless abyss at the very heart of things. Scary stuff.
Lucy Durneen has a fine sense of rhythm, a precise use of language, and a sharp eye for the meanings woven into the stories of past, present and future.
Lucy Durneen Wild Gestures Midnight Sun 2016 PB 208pp $24.99
Carmel Bird is the author of 30 books including novels, collections of short fiction, and books on writing, such as Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life. Her most recent novel is Family Skeleton, published in 2016.
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