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Posted on 7 May 2019 in Fiction |

AS PATRIC The Butcherbird Stories. Reviewed by James McKenzie Watson

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AS Patrić won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel Black Rock White City. In this new collection he demonstrates his mastery of the short story.

Patrić’s fourth short-story collection, The Butcherbird Stories, reads with a misty and dreamlike intensity, exploring dark themes in crystalline prose.

Variety abounds in these 11 vastly different stories – tales that reach as far as Patrić’s birthplace of Serbia and as near as the rain-slicked streets of Melbourne, explore themes as personal as a thief’s guilt and as profound as the potential for a second biblical flood, and feature immigrants, cabbies, chefs, swimmers, travellers, rogues and child artists among a sprawling cast of characters. Ultimately, what connects these 11 very different pieces is Patrić’s ability to shock, surprise and move. It’s an ability he demonstrates early, as an elderly swimmer doing laps of a pool spots something out of place on the tiles below him in ‘Avulsion’:

I’m going well when I see something drifting along the bottom and it could be a bandaid, yet it is not, and it should be anything else but it’s a finger … A finger means I’ll have to stop ten minutes after I started and I need my hour in the pool to have a good night’s sleep. Without a long swim my legs will buzz, my blood will hum.

The piece is just five pages long, and yet builds to a payoff more ingenious and satisfying than might be found in stories twice its length. It sets an ominous mood that warns of an author who will veer left when he’s expected to turn right – a promise Patrić delivers on time and again.

Reading on, it becomes apparent that the direct nature of the inner dialogue in the face of something so bizarre in ‘Avulsion’ is typical of Patrić. Shocking scenes are explored in concise and controlled prose, the calmness with which Patrić writes heightening the intensity of his subject matter. He murmurs some of his most confronting stories in words as pristine and delicate as glass – as in ‘Dead Sun’ or the Kafka-inspired ‘Among the Ruins’. Likewise, he describes a car crash in the haunting ‘Memories of Jane Doe’ with stunning grace:

She was broken, a busted, bleeding body and barely saw anything outside raging agony. It might have been beautiful if not for the pain and fear. Bunches of flowers in her back seat, the impact sending them tumbling around her, like the inside of a snow globe. The flowers dancing floral rainbows about her eyes. The carnations falling to cover her right eye in pink. It could have been beautiful.

Beyond these vivid and violent moments, the writing is most impactful when Patrić is (presumably) writing autobiographically. In ‘Punctured Air’, he speaks of a family displaced from their native Serbia to a new life in Melbourne:

As a writer, I wonder about those of us who have been removed from our places of birth, who leave language, history and ancestry to begin anew somewhere else. We become proud owners of words inherited from parents that are not our own. Our first sentences are composed within a literary history that has given us so few pages we barely exist.

It cannot be an accident that ‘Punctured Air’ falls so far towards the end of the book, to be experienced only once the reader is already enrapt by the beauty and strangeness of these tales. The context it offers to Patrić’s own past brings the power of his words into even starker relief.

The Butcherbird Stories is a collection that lingers far beyond its final page. It imparts to the reader the quiet unease of a half-remembered dream – something that haunts in blurred outlines and muddled colours. Surely, this is the intention.

AS Patrić, The Butcherbird Stories Transit Lounge 2018 HB 243pp $29.99

James McKenzie Watson writes short and novel-length fiction. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesMcWatson

You can buy The Butcherbird Stories from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.