SUE WOOLFE Do You Love Me Or What? Reviewed by Carmel Bird
These short stories from Sue Woolfe offer alienation, yearning and brilliance.
The final story in this collection of eight pieces is an extract from the personal papers of an unnamed fiction writer, with footnotes by Professor Amelia Broughton, who has prepared an article about the dead author. Amelia speaks directly to her readers; the writer addresses her ‘only friend’, someone she calls ‘P’. Amelia believes she has discovered the identity of P, and she further reveals the way in which the writer has profoundly tricked and betrayed the academic. Within the layers of this thrilling and brilliant narrative are some scientific theories of personality and artistic processes, referencing Colin Martindale, as well as some discussion of the techniques of the art of writing fiction. Such wonderful twists and turns for readers to enjoy.
Amelia, for all her intelligent sleuthing of the writer, is another disillusioned character in a gathering, across the collection, of sad and unfulfilled human beings in search of themselves. The writer of the extracts is revealed, if Amelia is to be believed (and even is she is not), as someone who is seriously disturbed, and unlikely to discover her strange and tragic self any time within the P papers, which are in the National Library of Australia.
Longing, belonging, pleading, yearning – these are the mantras of the characters throughout the stories. The answer to the question of the title would appear to be: ‘No.’ There is one man ‘from the land of the yearners’. But they are usually women, women who are not the pretty ones, not the chosen ones. The one who senses ‘imminent banishment from life as she knew it’, the one who feels ‘tethered to her self-destruction’, those who taste bush oranges and detect ‘mango, marzipan’ and then ‘kerosene’, who imagine killing themselves with rat poison and dying ‘looking like a rat’. This is dark stuff. Furthermore it is all shameful, and as Willy Loman (referenced) said: ‘Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace.’ Even archangels, those beings who might be supposed to work in favour of humans, are intent on banishing the woman in ‘The Dancer Talks’ ‘forever from the earth’. One woman’s soul is ‘perforated with emptiness’, a hole in the heart as well as in the soul.
So what has gone wrong for all these people? Well, the secret lies in the ‘horrors of the past’, ‘all the sadness, the heartbreak’, in the wounds inflicted on and by ancestors, some of whom are very distant indeed. Something is ‘broken in the past’, and it seems, no matter how great the anguish, it can probably never be mended. That which is incomplete will remain forever incomplete, as the characters search for the formula while scarcely knowing what it would be a formula for. Paradise? Love? Perhaps it is ‘kindness’? Would that do it? ‘…those of us who’ve found a temporary place in this slippery whirling world must hold out a hand to those who haven’t.’
‘We were one of those sad, violent families,’ says the narrator of ‘Passport’. And the father didn’t know ‘how to love’ the mother. Love in fact seems to be one of the great absences in the lives of the characters. Sometimes there is a nurse, and in ‘Small Talk’ the commonsense of the white nurse in the Indigenous community brings Diana, the white visitor, to an understanding of how to be with Aboriginal people. Diana says she has received the enlightenment she came for, and this story at least appears to end on a hopeful note. The hope of contact with or messages from ancient history surfaces again in ‘The List-Maker’ when the woman feels her mind ‘unlocked’ and somehow in touch with ‘distant kin’ from ‘tens of thousands of years ago’ when an ancestor ‘walked over to a tree and scratched an entirely new mark: one’.
Literature and painting are art forms that occur as motifs across the stories. In ‘The Last Taxi Away From Here’ the paintings of Renaissance Florence inform the imagination of the woman, one of the most yearning yearners, rendering her vulnerable to the cruel sexual exploitation and trickery of a golden-eyed Florentine man who can trace his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-great grandfather. He is so noble; she is so not; he is the guardian of the family library of 14th-century illuminated manuscripts; she collects grotty old recipe books and confides in her ‘rheumy old dog’, who eventually dies. But she is to a degree redeemed by listening to the Arno, which tells her ‘Take your yearning home’. So she returns to the restaurant she runs in Australia.
Australia, where the earth is the ‘colour of sunsets, blushes, apricots’, and also of ‘ripe tomatoes’. This list of colours is one of several in the collection – the others being hypnotic tellings of the names of oil paints: ‘cadmium yellow, cerulean blue, alizarin crimson, viridian green, vermilion, burnt sienna’, and inks, ‘turquoise, purple, emerald, crimson’. Red hair, on either a man or a woman, is not to be trusted.
The broad enterprise of the collection is to articulate and enact the sorrowful narratives of disappointed lives, lives infected or undone by the gross accidents of history, generally with no hope of recovering the unnamed selves for which the characters endlessly yearn. Once, in ‘Passport’, the father told the narrator:
… how he’d glimpsed ripe pears hanging from a tree and he’d climbed across a roof for them. I can see them still, the golden pendulous pears glowing against the dark leaves like light globes. But the roof turned out to be a glass house and he’d fallen through.
You see, so often the fruits they yearn for send them crashing to the ground. The man in ‘The List-Maker’ finishes the extract from the papers by saying to the woman: ‘What are your plans?’ Amelia Broughton finishes the whole engrossing story, and the collection, with her footnote, filling in gaps and making startling revelations, but as for what the plans might be – probably nothing, if the evidence is anything to go by.
Sue Woolfe Do You Love Me or What? Simon & Schuster 2017 HB 256pp $29.99
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. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Award.
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