Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2019

The Butcherbird Stories, by A.A. Patric

Any book that arrives as a hardback these days, is an event.  Even Big Names are mostly published in paperback these days, and it’s rare to see time and effort put into book design and covers.  But The Butcherbird Stories, a collection of short stories by Miles Franklin winner A.S. Patrić, has elegant pale mint boards, thick enough to have the title and author’s name embossed into the front cover.  The dustcover design is by Peter Lo:  it features an image increasingly common in the Aussie backyard: a swimming pool.  But in this image there are ominous clouds on the horizon.  Those clouds also feature on the endpapers.

And then there’s the title…

Two Grey Butcherbirds perching on a suburban paling fence (Wikipedia*)

Butcherbirds are pretty to look at, but…

Butcherbirds […] get their name from their habit of impaling captured prey on a thorn, tree fork, or crevice. This “larder” is used to support the victim while it is being eaten, to store prey for later consumption, or to attract mates.  (Wikipedia)

and

With its lovely, lilting song, the Grey Butcherbird may not seem to be a particularly intimidating species. However, with its strong, hooked beak and its fierce stare, the Grey Butcherbird is not a bird to be messed with. When a nest or newly fledged chick is around, if you venture too close, a butcherbird will swoop by flying straight at your face, sometimes striking with enough force to draw blood, and each swoop is accompanied by a loud, maniacal cackle. (Birdlife Australia)

Home of the BBQ. the Aussie backyard can also be a dangerous place.

So even if you know nothing at all about the edgy fiction of A.S. Patric and his Miles Franklin-winning Black Rock White City, the bookcover tells you that this collection will skewer cosy assumptions because even seemingly benign situations can mess with you if you venture up close.

One of the stories is called ‘Among the Ruins’.  As soon as I started reading it, I recognised it.  As ‘Bruno Kramzer’ it was published in the FL (Finlay Lloyd) Smalls Collection and shortlisted for the Viva La Novella Prize 2013.  (Well before the Miles Franklin win in 2016) Jane Rawson read it back then and wrote at GoodreadsTiny perfection: the kind of book that deserves to be read and discussed 100 years from now. A lot more people should know about AS Patric. Angela Meyer’s enthusiastic response prompted me to buy it: she recognised that Kafkan sense of creeping, flickering doom beneath an almost banal surface. Ah well, I read Kafka much too long ago to recognise specific references but the absurdism reminded me of Gogol and the character reminded me of the accused in a murder trial for which I was a juror. Stupid, evil, banal, wholly lacking in the sort of humanity that I take for granted in the people that I meet.  

There’s that characteristic Patrić edginess in the first story: ‘The Bengal Monkey’.  Australians are great travellers, and this story draws on how the risky things the young do when away from home and keen to experience everything, can follow them home. These are the first lines:

Inviting an ex-lover to an engagement party was bound to turn out badly.  Clara had been persuaded it would be OK.  It really hadn’t required a lot of persuasion since Lucas was one of those lovely alcoholics and she liked him more now than when they were together.  He got sweeter with every glass of wine and his hard living hadn’t yet been too unkind to him.

There was a smile on his face when he brought the framed painting out into the room of friends and colleagues. The bastard must have gone hunting through her wardrobe to find it—pulling out blankets as he searched, pushing aside coats she hadn’t worn in years.  Photo albums would’ve been lifted away, as well as another framed picture, to finally get to her portrait.

‘Remember this?’ he asked with his smile spilling at the edges into drunken goofiness. No-one else in the room had seen it.  Her fiancé, Mitchell, hadn’t seen the portrait either. (p.1)

Hmm.  An embarrassing portrait from time together in Dhaka.  But that’s not all…

In ‘Avulsion’ an old man is swimming in a pool:

Swimming in early summer is a particular pleasure.  Sunlight through the high windows lasts past eight in the evening.  Not too many people around.  I’m going well when I see something drifting along the bottom and it could be a bandaid, yet it is not, and should be anything else but a finger.

I swim up the lane, come back.  I don’t really want to see it again.  I’d rather it was a hallucination. I’ve always been curious about what kind of experience that would be.  Too practical a mind.  Too dominated by logic for such geysers of imagination.  I’m already thinking about the bother instead.  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. (p.13)

Thematically, these stories focus on the unexpected that jerks us out of everyday life:

There’s no foretaste of doom.  Our tragedies stun us. A storm slips through a crack in an open sky.  The whole world a glass sphere, falling down in shards.  A mind will explode as if it were the bullet that broke everything open to begin with.  Catastrophes never need a trigger.  No warning.  No inkling.  (‘Avulsion’, p.14)

Perhaps it is his heritage that focusses Alec’s attention on unsettling aspects of life.  As a very small boy, he migrated to Australia from a nation called Yugoslavia.  (See Meet an Aussie Author). Now that same place is the Former Yugoslavia, and the part of it where he was born is a nation called Serbia.  Like fellow Aussie Sofija Stevanovic, author of Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, he has lived the unsettling experience of a having a heritage that, unexpectedly, no longer exists in the same way.  Alec brings to his fiction the paradoxical idea of being an outsider who belongs, derived from an Australian childhood in a family with roots elsewhere.  Millions of us in Australia have this bi-cultural baggage, but (apart from refugees who dare not go home), most of us born elsewhere can make a nostalgic trip ‘home’ to a place that’s not unlike the place our parents reminisce about, fragments of which we may even remember ourselves.  But when countries implode, shift borders, are ‘annexed’ or scrap part of their identity à la Brexit, our sense of belonging becomes warped.  We are not sure what that heritage is any more, but can’t quite abandon it either.  This edginess, this sense that life is not quite as secure as we assume it will be, is what makes Alec’s writing so interesting.   Also notable is how often Alec’s characters in these stories are nameless (the boy, the girl, the man, the father etc) suggesting a universality that is unsettling too.

One last quotation because the temperature in Melbourne is heading for 40° today, and these first lines from the titular story are so breathtakingly apt:

The girl asks where the shadows have gone.  Her father pulls her along without answering the question.  How to explain the ferocity above and the way it kills shade everywhere except directly below their feet.  It bleaches the concrete footpath they are walking along, ricochets in billions of points off the whitewashed walls and blazes from metal and glass. ‘Sorry,’ he says.  ‘I didn’t know how far it was.  I thought it was a fifteen minute walk.’ Another thing he wasn’t expecting is how quickly the day would begin to roar with heat.  He’s pulling along his three-year-old daughter, her arm high and outstretched.  Feels her wilting from second to second.  Her skin is red despite the hat and sunscreen—a deep blush of heat.  (‘Butcherbird’, p.41)

Other reviews are at Booklover Book Reviews; GatesyRead and Kill Your Darlings.

Update 28/1/19 Bill at The Australian Legend has just reviewed it too.

*Photo attribution:  Butcherbird by Tatiana Gerus – Wikipedia, originally posted to Flickr as Mirrored butcherbird :), CC BY 2.0,

Author: A.S. (Alec) Patrić
Title: The Butcherbird Stories
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2018, 243 pages
ISBN: 9781925760101 (hbk)
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Transit Lounge and Fishpond: Butcherbird Stories


Responses

  1. I’ll do a Sue and read/comment after I’ve done my own review over the weekend (I know it’s not a race but I hate coming second!)

    Like

    • Always best not to read them when writing your own. I found those reviews ages ago and noted them at Goodreads where I found them again after I’d published, and also then found the one by Gatesy, a reviewer new to me. He’s an English teacher with his own blog, but he’s hard to follow there because it’s a Blogger blog and doesn’t have categories or a recent posts widget. You can find him at Goodreads where it’s easier to follow him. His tastes appear to be wider than the genres he’s listed, see https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3214246.Geoffrey_Gates
      (I love it when I find a new reviewer that I like!)

      Like

  2. Wonderful to read your – as always – full and stimulating response to a great collection.

    Like

  3. Agree, always nice to receive and read a hardbark, they do feel like quite an indulgence.

    Like

  4. And a hardback even.

    Like

    • Yes, exactly. The Folio Society still produces beautiful books, but the big conglomerates mostly just churn out really ordinary books (from a design POV). Transit Press is a small publisher, so while obviously they have to be profitable, they’re not answerable to a bunch of greedy shareholders.

      Like

  5. Handsome birds, but pretty fierce looking. The ones here in the UK look very different: smaller, less like magpies. They’re fierce, too. These stories sound well done; how clever to write in a language that’s not your first. Conrad used at least three!

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    • Yes, Conrad’s English is impeccable. But Patric has been here since he was very small so even if the family spoke Serbian at home (and I’m not sure that they did) English has been his other language since he started school. I’ve met him a few times, and he sounds just like a proper Aussie.
      I should add that there’s a story about the migration experience in this collection that seems strongly autobiographical, but I am wary of assuming that a narrator is the author himself.

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      • I was wondering how old he was when he arrived in Australia. The younger the better for acquiring a new language; my grandsons have lived in Barcelona 18 months, and speak Catalan (medium of their nursery school), Spanish (mother’s language – she’s Chilean, and always speaks it with them), and English (their father’s language – my stepson). The older one, just coming up to 5, still uses some German; he was born in Berlin, where they used to live. It’s fascinating what linguistic chameleons they are at that age.

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        • Yes indeed. I think that we do people a grave disservice when we allow a child to grow up monolingual.

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  6. They sound like interesting stories. I like stories to grab my attention from the start.

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    • I’m not a great fan of short stories, but there are a couple of writers who get past that gateway, mainly because of their themes.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) review (here) […]

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  8. I’m back. What a great talent! I hope he has a novel on the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. #TapsFoot I’m waiting impatiently too.

      Like


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