I had planned that this collection of short stories by Josephine Rowe would be a guest review by the Queen of Short Story Reviewing Karenlee Thompson, but the book is a convenient handbag size, and it seemed to slip in so easily, for ‘just in case I find myself stuck somewhere with nothing to read’ …
And when recently my day got into a bit of a muddle because of a change in time for the dogs’ appointment at the beauty parlour, I found myself killing time in a local cafe, yes, needing something to read.
It says a lot for this collection that I was so absorbed in reading the first few stories that I was at first oblivious to the arrival at an adjacent table of 15 rowdy old women. It was not until one of them tottered over to one of her pals near me that the reek of Dencorub for her arthritic joints alerted me to their presence – and just as well, or the dogs would still be uncollected at the beauty parlour and the cafe proprietor would have been shooing me out of the door at closing time.
I didn’t finish reading the collection that day but found it handy to have the book in my bag for those brief periods of waiting that inevitably arise with appointments of one sort or another. Beautifully crafted, powerful stories that made me stop and reflect, and remember. Many of them are the kind of stories that trigger memories of similar situations. This collection is one that will have the reader spend as much time thinking as actually reading …
The stories vary in length and few are very short, but this vignette will give you an idea of Rowe’s style.
You could tell just by how clean her hair was, someone told the papers afterwards. You could tell she had money, that she was somebody. Had been somebody.
On the morning we found out, we didn’t say very much. We smoked a lot and passed the papers around the table, comparing the stories in the tabloids with the stories in the broadsheets.
Somewhere there was a matchbox, her baby teeth nestled into cotton wool. Somewhere the bronzed baby shoes, the envelope of feathery blonde curls, kept safe. (p13)
I will remember this story every time I see one of those awful media reports about a body being found.
The collection is held together by this theme of things left behind: relics, souvenirs, keepsakes, memorials, but also residual ideas.
The blurb expresses it well:
A mother moves north with her young children, who watch her and try to decipher her buried grief.
Two photographers document a nation’s guilt in pictures of its people’s hands.
An underground club in Western Australia plays jazz to nostalgic patrons dreaming of America’s Deep South.
A young woman struggles to define herself among the litter of objects an ex-lover has left behind.
In short vignettes and longer stories, Josephine Rowe explores the idea of things that are left behind: souvenirs, scars, and prejudice. Rowe captures everyday life in restrained poetic prose, merging themes of collective memory and guilt, permanence and impermanence, and inherited beliefs. These beautifully wrought, bittersweet stories announce the arrival of an exciting new talent in Australian fiction.
I found that as the collection progressed, the cumulative effect became a bit depressing. Rowe’s observations of life are on the melancholy side, and may be best sampled in short episodes. But the title story ‘Tarcutta Wake’, with its ensemble of interesting characters, made me hope for a novel from this talented writer. I loved that road journey that so many of us have undertaken, and the quirky allusions to Holbrook’s submarine: this is an author who can evoke the Australian bush with a fond city-dweller’s eye, which is how most of us relate to it.
You can find out more about Josephine Rowe on her website.
Author: Josephine Rowe
Title: Tarcutta Wake, Stories
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP