It’s only three weeks since I posted about my reading of Karenlee Thompson’s new book, Flame Tip, a collection of short fictions loosely themed around the catastrophic Black Tuesday Bushfires in Tasmania in 1967. The 50th anniversary of those fires was February 7th 2017 but already this fire season has claimed its victims, making me wonder why more Australian authors haven’t tackled this theme. Fellow Tasmanian Amanda Lohrey did, in her novella Vertigo (see my review), Roger McDonald wrote about a young arsonist in The Slap (see my review) and Delys Bird edited a collection called Fire (see Karenlee’s guest review). But for a natural disaster which looms so large in our national consciousness, it’s strange that I don’t know of any others except a brilliant children’s story called Ash Road by Ivan Southall.
In my previous post about this book, I explained that I’d only read four of the fictions because I only had an advance PDF copy. Would I have read that if it had been by anyone else other than Karenlee who has contributed so much to this blog? No. I loathe reading PDFs. If there is anything worse than reading on a Kindle, it is reading a PDF on a computer. So you will understand why I was so pleased to receive a copy of the real thing yesterday, and to loaf in bed this morning, enjoying the simple pleasure of holding the book in my hands and reading it. (Kudos to the book designer, BTW, it’s by Art on Order).
The thing is, reading a real book is different. Lately some of my Facebook friends and Twitter pals have been alerting me to scientific studies which show all kinds of interesting results… all of which seem to point to what some of us knew all along. We remember what we’ve read better when we read it in a real book. Guided by our brains which tell us where on the page to find it, we to-and-fro among the pages when we want to revisit an image or clarify our understanding. Our senses journey with us as we feel the heft of the remaining pages, scampering along towards an exciting climax or moving slowly when we don’t really want the book to end.
And we comprehend better when we read it in a real book. In my previous post I mentioned a piece called ‘Lost’. This piece takes the form of a Lost-and-Found notice in a newspaper, and over two pages it lists the belongings lost in the fire.
Including: four-bedroom weatherboard home with indoor amenities, a much loved border collie answering to the name of Richie, a sense of security, linen and cutlery, a priceless hand-painted jardinière, stamp collection gathered and assembled over three generations, pink shower cap studded with daisies, deck of hand-painted burlesque playing cards, a position of some standing in the community, 2 striped deck chairs, a three-legged cat… (p.43)
I read this before, and I thought I empathised, but when I held the book in my hand to read it again, my sense of this woman’s loss was magnified. I could see her in her pinnies and navy court shoes as I did not see her before, and the book, not the PDF, made me react: What if I lost my cherished books, all of them, and worse than that lost my place in my community while sheltered by the Salvos afterwards? I have never understood why people want to rebuild in vulnerable places before, but now I do. Belongings means something different to possessions…
Reading the whole collection made me realise something else: that Karenlee’s choice to make this collection ‘loosely-themed’ around the fires was an appropriate one. None of us ever drive through dense bush in summer without a momentary apprehension because bushfires are an unavoidable part of Australian life. Every year we see them on TV somewhere, and every year we dig deep for the relief effort. Memories and fear are tucked deep into our consciousness, and – even for those of us never directly affected – they surface into everyday life many years after the event in strange, unpredictable and inexplicable ways. Fiction, and a careful choice of narration as in these stories, unravels the pathways of these memories and fears.
Fiction also allows for revelations I had not considered. In ‘Degustation’ one of the hungry little girls from up the hill with no shoes and no home, wearing a floral blouse that’s two sizes too big and a torn plaid skirt has grown into a woman dining with a profiteer who bought up all the available charred and rubble-ridden farms in the district after the fires had rendered the singed locals almost comatose with shock.
Author: Karenlee Thompson
Title: Flame Tip, short fictions
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers.