21: Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe
Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2012
‘I am sorry that it hurt you. But even so, it was something I carried around with me. Something folded small that I could take out and look at whenever I wanted to.’
Josephine Rowe is a young Melbourne writer whose work has been published in the prestigious Meanjin, Overland and The Best Australian Stories. Tarcutta Wake is a slim volume of 104 pages gracefully scattering vignettes of people’s lives across twenty-five stories, much as Esther does with Robin’s ashes in the title story. So many characters’ lives folded small – some explored in a paragraph, others in a handful of pages.
Rowe dignifies the composite parts of a person’s life. She draws out the parts to place before us as offerings. By savouring these stories, we might find ourselves reflected in them. Are we too running away, moving house, farewelling a lover, doing something unexpected, grieving losses? Characters move on, leaving others behind, but Rowe’s dignity as a storyteller lifts us, like the neighbour’s singing –
‘in the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing, and his voice thrummed through all the busted hot water systems and dirty sheets and disconnection notices, through the discarded needles and the places where our bicycles used to be… his voice made these things better than they were.’ (p. 25)
The stories unfold to reveal a myriad of characters who observe life going on around them, placing the reader – as observer – unobtrusively on the edge of understanding. We sit on the bed in room 17 with Eli, the first narrator, and beside her in the car as she takes us on the run to Brisbane. Her mother is driving, leaving Dad and Victoria behind. We’re with Laith as he climbs out of the tank, and with him as he sees his son growing up in Facebook photos. We’re behind the camera that observes the ‘nicotine stains, scars, tattoos’ of participants’ hands in an art project. We meet the taxidermist’s wife, the distant lover, the elderly doorman who dances with all the girls like it was a ‘different time and place’, and an artist’s model. We don’t meet Sonja sitting alone in her apartment, or the singing man, or Thao, but we are told a little of their stories and know that they meant something to someone.
For such a small volume, its weight is something to be carried around with you. There are many readers who scorn short stories because they want the full meat of a novel – a saga and an adventure – they want to be told what happens. I think snapshots and the gathering of a few fine words can be as satisfying when presented by such a strong writer. It is then that your imagination takes flight.
I’m planning a short short story reading challenge. Join me?