Review of Fine by Michelle Wright (The Australian 16.6.16)
A middle-aged woman named Delia has just been evicted for the fourteenth time. She takes refuge in a dump full of car wrecks and meets a ten year-old boy named Jay who lives on his own in the ute next door to Delia.
‘He tells her about his collection of rust and tells her he reckons that one day the whole excavator will have turned into crumbling leaves and will fit into his box. Delia says that everything will fit into a box if you wait long enough.’
In these thirty-three finely wrought short stories Michelle Wright demonstrates impressive control of the form, every story offering a powerful glimpse into a world via the juxtaposition of a character’s inner life with their outer circumstances.
Many of these stories are told from the point of view of a child or adolescent, an increasingly common literary device and perhaps a reflection of the burgeoning popularity of young adult fiction.
A child hides beneath his grandparents’ kitchen sink. He is eavesdropping on a conversation about his delinquent mother and nibbling on a family block of chocolate he should wait to share with his mother at her next visit.
‘They sit on the pouf…facing each other with their knees touching. Then Mummy puts one end of the row in her mouth and he puts the other end in his, and they let it melt square by square…’
Wright’s style is precise, lyrical and un-tricksy even if occasionally it can feel a little too restrained: as if the hand-break needs releasing to give the writing more room to move.
In a story set in the aftermath of the Sir Lankan Tsunami, Wright endows ordinary things with fresh significance.
‘Near a hotel in Hikkaduwa he picks out suitcases, plastic chairs, a pool umbrella like a javelin in the ground.’
On New Year’s Day a paperboy is up early to do his rounds.
‘As he hops on his bike and turns from the driveway out onto the footpath, he sees the coloured lights strung up under the new neighbour’s carport, still on and looking kind of pretty against the quiet blue sky.’
There are no big shots here. There are people who want new lives. Traumatised couples stumble amidst ruined marriages. Parents grieve lost children or worry about the ones they have. There is a twelve year-old girl who sets up a street stall selling her prize collection of fifty latest fashion sunglasses to help out with family finances. School kids brave the playground bully. A man working for the dole, rather than tell his childhood abuse story to the police confides in a cleaning lady. There is a prisoner who dreams of becoming an artist and a former champion boxer who ‘fourteen broken noses later returns to his home in Ceylon and begins a new career as a king coconut seller.’
All essentially good people in tough circumstances and all just doing the best they can.
It’s hard to write good people and make them plausible and interesting but Wright can. Her dialogue is true and her voice unsentimental and despite the prevalence of downbeat subjects these stories from the ‘get in get out and don’t linger ‘school of story telling, are full of compassion.
Invariably they begin in medias res – no set up or preamble – so the reader fills in the backstory, absorbs the subtext and dives straight into the action. And there’s the cracker opening line to hook the reader in from the get go.
‘When she has burnt toast for breakfast, there’s a trace left on her fingers that smells like cigarettes.’
A woman is studying applied linguistics and her father has a PhD in Middle English. They shared a love of language.
‘My father is dead. My dad is dead. I decide I need to hear the words pronounced, to accept the fact of them and give them voice. Already the words my father spoke are losing shape.’
Even if sometimes Wright’s love of a good metaphor is overstated, themes are gracefully abstracted from central metaphors and minimal plots.
When a woman goes for a swim in the ocean for the first time since her husband’s death, Wright describes the natural world with its power to destroy and to reassure.
‘She turns and looks back out at the water. It’s calm now, but grey and sullen, hungover from its rage… But she knows it’s only physics, just pressures and speeds, energy and friction. And the human body in all that. Her body.’
Crucially these stories have a sense of something unravelling or unfolding so that the reader wants to keep on reading to find out what happens next and maybe, even, to understand why.
‘I read for pleasure,’ wrote Margaret Atwood, ‘and that is the moment at which I learn most. Subliminal learning.’