Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2023

An Ordinary Ecstasy (2022), by Luke Carman

There are seven stories in Luke Carman’s 2022 collection and two of them are novella length, capturing my interest straight away because they are character driven.

Joseph, in ‘A Beckoning Candle’, is an old bloke who lives in a gentrifying inner suburb of Sydney.  In a story that reminded me not of Philip Salom’s style but of his poignant inner urban characters from Waiting (2016); The Returns (2019; or Sweeney and the Bicycles (2022), Joseph is witnessing change in the place where he has lived all his life.  He is losing his memory a little bit too, but he remembers enough to miss the acquaintances from his daily walks and to mourn their old homes coming down to be replaced by apartments.

The noise of building construction is ever present, and on the morning when the story opens, the tradies next door have damaged the postwar sewage system and created a catastrophe in Joseph’s back yard. Two weeks ago, they’d knocked down the fence too.

Egged on by Marg ‘voicing her concerns’ which included a lack of faith in Joseph’s capacity to do anything about this fence problem, Joseph had set off to discuss the matter with those responsible.  In a satire which resembles the sort of speech that maiden politicians can make — no tradie I’ve ever encountered would submit to a flood of rhetoric without interruption — Joseph voices his concerns in response to the cheery reassurance that all will be well.

‘If it’s all the same to you, and with all due respect, I think I will worry about it.’ […] ‘Again, with total appreciation for the task you blokes are required to undertake here, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask, that if you’re going to knock a man’s fences down, it’s fair play to either offer a verbal warning in advance, if the action’s intentional, or if it’s done in error, to provide him with some timely words of reassurance that the injury isn’t done with total disregard for his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I’m seventy-three years old, I’m not young and fit like you blokes are, and a man my age has concerns, not only for his own safety and the safety of his loved ones, but for the safety of his property too. You blokes might not be aware of this, but we tend, as we get older, to see things from a perspective different to that of a man your age, who’s young and in his prime. We old farts don’t have the luxury of throwing our hands up in the air when disaster strikes and hoping for a bumper crop come next spring, we can’t shrug our shoulders and conclude that here’s nothing to worry about in the short term.  The short term is all we have left!’ (p.16)

He goes on. He goes on in an extended paragraph of two pages.  He explains that he fears scrappers or carpetbaggers coming in the night and getting curious about a lifetime’s worth of tools and equipment in his garage while the tradies have gone home and are sitting on [their] recliners watching the footy. 

‘This might sound like spilt milk to you, but for a man my age, on a pension, don’t forget, replacing a broken padlock puts me in irreversible arrears, let alone a new lawnmower. My time of acquiring is long gone. I only have what’s left to me, and so at my age every loss is eternal.’ (p.17)

This comic episode reveals not only the emotional cost of the damage done to the fence, but the poverty our mean-spirited society imposes on elderly people dependent on the pension.

Joseph’s worries are uncomfortably realistic.  He fears a stray dog in an altercation with his frail wife; or bored teenagers thinking it might be funny to snatch her knickers off the Hills Hoist.

‘Are you going to come out and accept a laundry list of unmentionables from a seventy-year-old woman, and take her shopping down at Merrylands to pick out underwear in her preferred colours and styles? I mean, for heaven’s sake, there are things a man my age entrusts a fully functional fence to prevent, and so I think it’s common courtesy that when you begin knocking down fences you might apply some consideration in your imagination as to what others might be keeping in and blocking out.’ (p.17)

Indeed. The suitably chastened manager makes the kind of promises we have come to expect from tradies, but Marg is not placated.

‘I’ve heard that before’, she said to the warm water in the kitchen basin, scrubbing mugs and plates without turning to face her husband.  (p.19)

And she was right, of course, because now there’s a flood of sewage in her backyard and the site manager has ‘no one coming out over the weekend’, but he’ll see what he can do and call Joseph back.

This entire episode reminded me of older friends downsizing to a unit, who between the sale of their old house on auction day and settlement discovered a river of water from next door’s swimming pool coursing through their property. The neighbour called the architect, who called the site manager, who called the builder, who called the subcontractor, who called the plumber, and none of them would take responsibility and nobody would fix it.  And all this while the bridging finance was mounting and there was a real risk that the new buyers wouldn’t settle, leaving our friends without the wherewithal to settle on their new place. Quite clearly they were in the right, they could have sued, and it would all have been fixed in the end.  But not in a timely manner, and not without causing enormous stress to people who are not very well.

This is what good storytelling does.  I’d love to see Carman’s story made into a short film, to be screened for apprentices in the building trade as a compulsory unit!

‘Tears on Main Street’ is very droll indeed.  The narrator, who has the patience of a saint with his eccentric old friend August Augustine, takes a trip to Byron Bay where August plans to fight an equally old and decrepit fellow called Cain Revera in revenge for some unspecified offence from long ago.  It’s easy to poke fun at the New Age nonsense and the  Wellness crowd at Byron, but Carman has it nicely under control, surpassing himself when they take a day trip to Nimbin in the hinterland. (Nimbin used to be full of hippies, but these days it’s more businesslike than alternative lifestyles.  Valuable land, I suppose, and a congenial place to live needs a supermarket and a pharmacy with conventional remedies too.) Again the comedy serves a purpose in interrogating the revenge theme which is doing the rounds in women’s fiction at the moment.

Carman’s people are real.  

Highly recommended. For another review, see The Conversation.

Author: Luke Carman
Title: An Ordinary Ecstasy
Design: Jenny Grigg, cover art Kangaroo Blank by Imants Tillers,1988
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922725240, pbk., 237 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing.


  1. Straight onto my library list! I am going to have to live forever…


    • That’s a thought.
      Message from On High. Dated 1 Jan 2050.
      Dear Madam, we note that you have yet again failed to present at the Pearly Gates for your entry pass. Your correspondence about the presence or otherwise of a library in Heaven is a delaying tactic and The Almighty is Not Pleased that you prefer to read a book than experience the spiritual joy of meeting him.
      Yours etc,
      Saint Peter
      PS Please note that there is definitely NOT a library in The Other Place.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sad/not sad :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never heard of Luke Carman but I like the sound of this! Just checked and our library has Intimate Antipathies, so I’ll try that. Have you read any more of his work Lisa?


    • I haven’t read that one, I think it might be essays.
      His debut was An Elegant Young Man which got a lot of love but I couldn’t get into it at ll.


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