Georgia Blain – shortlisted for numerous awards, including the NSW and SA premier’s literary awards, and the Nita B. Kibble Award – is the author of five novels, three of which I have read and reviewed: Candelo (1999); The Blind Eye (2003) and Names for Nothingness (2005). She has also written essays, a memoir called Births, Deaths and Marriages and a recent YA novel called Darkwater but The Secret Lives of Men is her first collection of short stories. Regular guest reviewer Karenlee Thompson explains why she found this collection uneven:
The title story of this loose collection by Georgia Blain is a perfect example of short story as mini-novella. An unabashed fan of the short story myself (in all its snapshot, slice-of-life permutations), I nevertheless understand that some people find them confusing. Regular complaints about short stories include: It wasn’t a real story or nothing was resolved, even there’s no proper beginning or ending. For those people, ‘The Secret Lives of Men’ (the short story, not the collection) will be appreciated. It is a lesson in how any story – long or short – can be built. Blain gives us a clear setting, thoroughly fleshed-out characters, a steady ascent to the climax and a satisfying denouement, all with an economical and precise use of words.
In this first piece, the small-town dress uniform – moleskin jeans and striped cotton shirt – is given some ‘panache’ when worn by the desirable Alastair. Clearly, Alistair’s death is shrouded in mystery. The story is propelled, not just by the mystery we crave to understand but also by the depth of feeling – a deep abiding sadness – expressed through perfect word choice and hauntingly lyrical prose:
I would wake in the early afternoon and see us both in that sharp light, Alistair still beautiful, eyes closed, skin pale gold, and I would wish that I was someone else (p. 13).
It’s a heart-wrenching story that hinted a promise for the twelve to follow.
Alas, for me, that promise was not upheld. I found many of the pieces too pared down, too free of adornment. Here and there, they bordered on the mundane. I was unable to rustle up any empathy or understanding for Emma whose wedding comes about seemingly as a result of pure laziness in ‘Just a Wedding’ and I could find no sympathy for the widower Pete in ‘The Bad Dog Park’.
Occasionally, it seems that Blain loses control of her characters. Without the luxury of a novel’s pages to build up personalities with distinctive traits, it would have been safer to limit their numbers. The line-up was confusing in ‘The Other Side of the River’, in ‘Her Boredom Trick’ and even more so throughout ‘Mirrored’ despite the early – clunky – introductions:
I had brought my daughter, Anna, and Jude and Aisla had their son, Miles. Sal, who had just left her girlfriend, had come on her own. She had known Frans and Simon the longest, having once shared a flat with them, years ago. (p. 167)
‘Escape’ keeps a humorous slant on a potentially dangerous adventure through a glimpse into the divergent lives of the divorced parents of a twelve-year-old boy and his teenaged sister. Their free-wheeling father lives in a messy light-filled house in the country surrounded by bush (‘Lawn belongs in Dullsville’) (p. 126) and he picks up his children in a frog-green Porsche Roadster.
In the final story ‘Flyover’, Blain returns to the prose style that promised so much in the opening piece with ‘apartment blocks pressed tight against the tangle of roads’ (p. 227), a courtyard gate ‘loose on its hinges from drunks and junkies trying to break in’ (p. 234) and she finishes on a high with a couple ‘trying to cut loose all the threads that had linked and tied [them] for the past two years’ (p. 246).
Writing for The Australian, Stella Clarke finds the ‘unembellished’ style allows for ambiguity and she seems to admire these ‘unfussy accounts’. Conversely, I would have like to see a bit more fuss, and considerably more embellishment in some of the stories.
The Age’s Peter Pierce finds Blain’s style ‘most affecting when plain’ but he also points to some confusion in stories where Blain ‘fails to untangle the welter of names with which we are greeted in the opening paragraphs’.
In the end, the excellent bookend stories are the saving grace so I might recommend the book purely for its ability to show that a solid beginning-middle-end story can be constructed in the short form.
© Karenlee Thompson
Karenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011. Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here. Karen blogs at Karen Lee Thompson.
Thanks, Karenlee, for once again contributing your expertise in analysing short story collections!
This review is cross-posted at Karen Lee Thompson.
Author: Georgia Blain
Title: The Secret Lives of Men
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2013.
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications
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