It’s been a long time between drinks for Winch. Her first book, Swallow the Air (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel about a Wurundjeri girl in search of her father, won many awards and catapulted the young Australian writer into the emerging-talent literary coterie. No pressure.
After the Carnage meets expectations. Here Winch continues to explore themes that coursed through her first book like white water: intergenerational grief, cross-culturalism, racism, family dysfunction, children in search of ‘‘lost’’ parents. If this is all sounding a bit badges-on-the-lapel, it is not. Winch can pack a punch and break your heart within a few pages.
She now lives in France and in these 11 short stories she moves farther afield into new geographical territory, her characters pivoting on a moment in life when past and future collide in personal crisis, causing them to make some kind of a shift, no matter how subtle.
In A Late Netting, a young man is working as a deckhand on a French couple’s boat, and they appear to be lost. Winch’s use of metaphor is striking: “If we had been drawn down a river, at least that knowing river would’ve taken us towards its mouth; a city might have invited us in and set us onto the certainty of a bank. Here, though, all those odds had fallen against us in a panic of horizon.’’
Stories vary in tone and style, and they can be funny. In Baby Island, a second-generation Chinese woman — ‘‘I was an amalgam: the union of my voice and face didn’t sit well with people” — is in China selling overpriced Australian education and mourning her childlessness and a recent break-up. We follow her down the empty streets of Guangzhou into a kind of surrealist baby-buying cafe.
‘‘Everywhere there were newly rubber-stamped babies, hundreds and hundreds of babies being quiet, screaming, crying, squirming, throwing food, giggling, staring blankly, rocking, rolling, crawling, climbing shoulders and booster chairs and the fabric of strollers. I pointed to an omelette.’’
In Easter, a brother is stationed in Paris on a Stanford journalism scholarship. His sister has come to visit him. It’s been nine years since they last saw one another, and as they wander around the city together, sibling intimacy re-surfaces, as do memories of childhood.
The power of memory to both comfort and disturb permeates these stories. Sometimes the memory of a moment in a character’s life is so vividly drawn you can just smell it.
I remember precisely being too young and riding the fair dodgem cars … with the night’s linger of boiled and fried meats, the warm wafts of powdered sugar on doughnut batter, even the damp smell of turned gravel underfoot, from night coming on the wet earth of a gullied town oval — each smell was rotated, propelled through the carnival; night from a flashing, jerking car.
Occasionally a story feels just a bit too abbreviated or there is an unnecessary data dump, but overall each is satisfyingly complete unto itself, with Winch’s prose supple and potent. At their best, these stories offer vivid insights into our complex humanity, pivoting on that moment when we realise things cannot continue as they were.
In Failure to Thrive, a young Nigerian student doing an internship at the UN is determined to break through the glass/class ceiling and get a foot in the door at Goldman Sachs. ‘‘They had their own entourage, those … rich kids from the European private schools. Did we all hate them? I think I hated them the most.’’
In the titular story After the Carnage, More, one of the collection’s finest, a man wakes up in a hospital corridor. There has been some kind of explosion. A terrorist attack? Where is his wife? Dazed and confused, the man summons images from his childhood in Lahore, his wife, his kids, their move to the US; snippets from the past collide with the present.
“That was the sound, at the restaurant, the sound of the car going into the pool — it was just like the sound of propane bombs on the cherry farm to scare the birds, birds hungry for ripe May cherries.’’ This is a layered, richly textured story about violence and hate and about a victim trying to understand it. ‘‘One can rationalize most things in life, except this — one cannot rationalize hate; hate is irrational.’’
The personal-is-political worldview flexes Winch’s considerable literary muscle. The stories in this book may be about some tough stuff but are never didactic or sentimental; Winch’s voice is more poet than prophet.
‘‘When I write,’’ she has said in an interview, ‘‘I dredge the gully of what I know best: what burnt me most, what wakes me in my sleep — the value of life.’’