Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2022

The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories (2000), edited by Mary Lord

Having stumbled on this collection of 30 short stories in an OpShop, I decided to check the collection for authors listed in Bill’s list of Gen4 authors: women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Because what is really good about this collection under the editorship of Mary Lord is, as she says in the Introduction:

…not another arrangement of regularly anthologised evergreens, but a collection that introduces readers to less well-known but still first-rate stories by outstanding writers, and to the work of some others not so well known whose writing has been overlooked or neglected. (p.1)

So there are some interesting rarities in the Table of Contents, which I reproduce below in case anyone is searching for those that are less well-known.  But in terms of Bill’s list of AWW4 writers, disappointingly there were none who were new to me in the collection.  So for the purposes of this post, I just read authors he’d listed.  

I began with Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’ published in 1976.  The twist in the tail made me laugh, as Jolley’s wicked sense of humour so often does.  Narrated by an adolescent daughter, it’s about a humble family (fatherless, with no explanation as to why or how), whose mother makes a living by charring.  She likes to give the poor people from down her street a bit of pleasure, so when the owners are absent from their luxury apartments, she lets the poor neighbours in to have wedding receptions and parties in the penthouse.  

This does, of course, cause extra work for her, and it adds to her responsibility to keep an eye on her father’s derelict farm.  It was the kind of place where nothing grew except weeds but it couldn’t be sold because Grandpa was still alive in a Home for the Aged, and he wanted to keep the farm though he couldn’t do anything with it.  But the time comes when it can be sold, and Mother takes the children there to get it ready for sale.  The ne’er-do-well brother takes to farm life immediately.

It seemed there was nothing my brother couldn’t do.  Suddenly after doing nothing in his life he was driving the tractor and making fire breaks, he started to paint the sheds and he told Mother what fencing posts and wire to order. All these things had to be done before the sale could go through. I kept wishing we could live in the house, all at once it seemed lovely there at the top of the sunlit meadow. But I knew that however many acres you have they aren’t any use unless you have money too. I think we were all thinking this but no one said anything thought Mother kept looking at my brother and the change in him. (p.247)

Well, the sale goes through, but there is a happy ending for this family of battlers after all.  The irony of the title is a gendered joke in a story featuring a strong independent and wily woman.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find which of Jolley’s short story collections includes this title, so if anyone finds it, please let me know. 

Then I read ‘On the Train by Olga Masters, published in 1982.  This is a deeply disturbing story about two little girls, Sara and Lisa, on a train journey with their mother.  Elderly women passengers note that the children are peaky and underdressed and their mother ignores them entirely.  The women try to strike up a conversation, more out of curiosity than friendliness, but nobody answers.  Though the omniscient narrator reveals Sara’s anxieties, and it is clear that the little family is making an exit from rural poverty to the city, there is no explanation for the mother’s hostile demeanour until the last shocking line.  I believe that this story can also be found in Australian Short Stories (1991) edited by Carmel Bird, and it’s also in Olga Masters’ Collected Stories, UQP, 1996, reprinted 2001). 

Next up, Helen Garner and a strange little story called ‘The Dark, the Light’, published in 1985.  Narrated in the first person plural, the story traces the flurry of excitement about the return of an unnamed man who had moved on and left these friends behind.  They are astonished and then rueful and embarrassed by the changes that they discern. 

We thought we saw him getting into a taxi outside the Rialto, outside the Windsor, outside the Regent, outside the Wentworth, outside the Stock Exchange.  Was it him? What was he wearing? What did he have on? A tweed jacket, black shoes.  Even in summer? His idea of this town is cold.  He’s been away.  He’s lost the feel of it. He’s been in Europe.  He’s been in America. He’s been in the tropics.  He’s left.  He’s gone.  He doesn’t live here any more.  He’s only visiting.  He’s only passing through.  […]

We saw them in a club.  We saw her.  She was blond. They were both blond.  They were together.  They were dressed in white, in cream, in gold, in thousands of dollars’ worth of linen and leather.  They sat at a table with their backs to the wall. The wall was dark.  They were light.  Their hair and their garments shone.  They knew things we did not know, they owned things we had never heard of. They were from somewhere else.  They were not from here. (p.275) 

I’m not sure that the narrator is to be trusted when, with hopes of recognition dashed, she concludes that they turn and go away, humbly and without bitterness…

‘Caffe Veneto’ (1985) is not like other fiction that I’ve read by Beverley Farmer. This Water: Five tales had a mythic quality, but ‘Caffe Veneto’ is brutal realism: a sharp and inconclusive dialogue between a philandering father and his exasperated daughter.  I didn’t like it much; I prefer Farmer’s quiet, thoughtful reflections…

Janet Turner Hospital’s ‘After Long Absence’ (1986) is brilliant. An inversion of The Prodigal Son, it’s the story of a daughter’s discomfort on returning from America to her very religious parents’ home..  It begins well enough:

For years it has branched extravagantly in dreams, but the mango tree outside the kitchen window in Brisbane is even greener than the jubilant greens of memory.  I could almost imagine my mother has been out there with spit and polish, buffing up each leaf for my visit.  (p.303)

But her irritation soon surges as quixotically as the Brisbane River in flood as her mother ‘gives thanks’ because nothing has ever been secular in this house.  Her childhood memories of school are scalded by the time her teacher denounced her as a ‘killer’ in front of the class, and named her parents as religious fanatics because they refused permission for vaccination. (Oh, I do hope this isn’t happening to the unfortunate children of anti-vaxxers now.)  Even more embarrassing is being recognised by a heartthrob called Patrick Murphy when she is made to join the circle of the faithful outside the Commonwealth Bank while her father offers the peace that passeth understanding to all the lost.  

On this visit, her father manages to make a small concession to her beliefs, but she can’t reciprocate.  This story is  a powerful evocation of a gulf that can’t be breached when strong beliefs are in conflict. 

Marion Halligan is one of my favourite authors: I think I’ve been reading her novels ever since her debut with Self-Possession in 1987.  I particularly liked Spider Cup (1990) and Wishbone (1994) because she is so brilliant at detailing fine art aspects of her settings: fabrics, china, flowers and so on.  ‘Belladonna’ (1988) is about an English trompe l’œil artist who stumbles into one of Canberra’s less salubrious suburbs in a quest for work in the capital.  The irony is that a capital designed to be beautiful by the team of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion, is compromised by unfeeling public servants with a limited vision of what public housing can be.  It’s a poignant story, penned by someone who knew that poverty is not just about not having money. This story is also in a collection guest reviewed by Karenlee Thompson, The Hanged Man in the Garden (1989).

Last of all, a story by Amy Witting, from 1990.  As you can tell from the title, ‘Report on a Rejected MS’ is a story not wanted because the connection between the characters is too tenuous. ‘These unconnected characters live in a town on the western plain: Theo the Greek who runs the café; and the young teacher of French.  They share only a bad moment, a middling moment and a joke, but these moments take place while Paris is under Occupation, and later, on the day it is liberated. 

But there they stand, drinking their wine and snivelling discreetly because Paris is free, and what’s to be done with them?  They don’t make a news item, they don’t make a poem, they don’t make a story, so where do they go?  Into the wastepaper basket?  That’s one place they’ll both feel at home. (p.330)

Ouch, that puts Australian complacency in its place, doesn’t it?

The Penguin Best  Australian Short Stories Table of Contents:

Authors named in Bill’s list are in bold, and links are to any authors or short stories that are reviewed on this blog. Asterisked stories are those I’ve included in this post. 

Author Title of short story YoP
John George Lang (1816-64) The Ghost Upon the Rail 1859
Mary Fortune(‘Waif Wanderer’) (1833?-1910?) The Dead Witness; or The Bush Waterhole 1866
Marcus Clarke (1846-81) Pretty Dick 1873
Jessie Couvreur (‘Tasma’) (1848-97) Monsieur Caloche 1889
Edward Dyson (1865-1931) The Golden Shanty 1890
William Astley (‘Price Warung’) (1855-1911) Parson Ford’s Confessional 1892
John Arthur Barry (1850-1911) Far Inland Football 1893
Arthur Hoey Davis (‘Steele Rudd‘) (1868-1935) Dad and the Donovans 1889
Henry Lawson (1867-1922) Brighten’s Sister-in-Law 1901
Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) Billy Skywonkie 1902
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) The Curse 1932
Ethel Robertson (‘Henry Handel Richardson‘) (1870-1946 Conversation in a Pantry 1934
Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) The Lottery 1943
Patrick White (1912-90) Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover 1964
Hal Porter (1911-84) Party Forty-two and Mrs Brewer 1965
John Morrison (1904-98) The Children 1972
Christina Stead (1902-83) Street Idyll 1974
Michael Wilding (1942- ) The Words She Types 1975
Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007 ) A Gentleman’s Agreement* 1976
Peter Carey (1943- ) The Last Days of a Famous Mine 1979
Morris Lurie (1938-2014) Pride and Joy 1979
Olga Masters (1919-86) On the Train* 1982
Helen Garner (1942- ) The Dark, the Light* 1985
Beverley Farmer (1941-2018) Caffe Veneto* 1985
Frank Moorhouse (1938- ) Francois and the Fishbone Incident 1985
Tim Winton (1960- ) Neighbours 1985
Janette Turner Hospital (1942- ) After Long Absence* 1986
Marion Halligan (1940- ) Belladonna Gardens*  1988
Amy Witting (1918-2001) Report on a Rejected MS* 1990
Delia Falconer (1966- ) Acqua Alta 1997
Where authors have died since the book was published, I have added the year of their death.

Editor: Mary Lord
Title: The Best Australian Short Stories
Cover design by Guy Mirabella and Penguin Design Studio
Publisher: Penguin, 2000, updated an earlier edition from 1991.
ISBN: 9780140299694
Source: Personal Library, OpShopFind, $3.00 (still with its original $22 price tag on the back).


  1. Thank you for that contribution Lisa. I’m sorry you didn’t come up with anyone ‘new’ – though I’ll certainly mention your later suggestion in my summary – I really enjoyed your account of these stories. We have been (I have been) struggling to say what makes this generation different. I think that you might agree that they are mostly more accomplished writers (I think of Gen 3 only Stead and Dark were good at writing, as distinct from story telling)


    • Aww, that’s a bit harsh about Gen 3…
      I did search around a bit online for some of your Gen 4 authors that I’d never read, but of course I got distracted by other must-have finds…


      • I think that’s a bit harsh too. What about Harrower? Such a writer. I’m too lazy to look for more right now.

        What a great post Lisa. Your dedication, particularly when you don’t really like short stories, is impressive!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like an interesting collection, and even if none of the authors were new, the aim to not feature all the usual stories in a collection is a good one!


    • Yes, I think it was a good strategy, and I’m certainly going to read some of the others in the ToC.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a fantastic collection, and the stories you festure here all sound excellent. I do enjoy reading writing from that period though. These authors may not have been new to you, but they are mainly new to me. I have only heard of Helen Garner, I read The Spare Room some years ago and Elizabeth Jolley though not read her.


    • It was such an exciting time, wasn’t it! Of international writers, I think Fay Weldon was my favourite, I have a whole shelf of her novels!


  4. Such a pleasure to see this, Lisa. I love so many stories in this collection (I studied it years ago in a literature unit), and ‘After Long Absence’ and ‘On the Train’ are among my favourites.


    • This is the first time I’ve come across Mary Lord, and I need to find out more about her….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing an oversight of this collection of stories. I have this book on my shelves and had dipped into it over the years. Some of the stories were instantly recognisable from their titles, such as ‘Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover’, and after reading ‘On the Train’ I went off in search of more stories by Olga Masters. I’ll revisit the book again, inspired by your post.


    • Thanks:)
      IMO Olga Masters is brilliant. Another woman who did the things that women did and then started writing when she finally had the opportunity later in life. Like Margaret Barbalet, she was good at depicting the lives of the underclass without being maudlin.


  6. […] this week Lisa/ANZLitLovers posted a review of The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories (1991). Because of the year it came out, it contained a number of interesting and relatively […]


  7. What a timespan for an anthology to cover, but I suppose one has to start somewhere. Nobody thinks a single anthology would suffice, eh? LOL Glad to see stories represented in the week too!


  8. […] | The Best Penguin Australian Short Stories, edited by Mary Lord | […]


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