Surely there is nothing better than sitting, book in hand, in Tilley’s (for the uninitiated, one of Canberra’s most iconic and deliciously moody cafes named after the infamous Kings Cross prostitute Tilley Devine). Sunlight drips languorously through lime-coloured leaves, with the smells of cinnamon and nutmeg rising from my glass of chai. And this: 10 Short Stories You Must Read This Year. The book has sat in a pile on my bedside table gathering dust for some time. Has been passed over repeatedly in favour of other books, and all because of its title. Shouted at me in caps, it makes me wary.
But on this hazy summer afternoon I open its pages expectantly. I feel relieved to discover a few gems: Monica McInerney’s beautifully-crafted and poignant story about a woman who discovers the art of letter writing, Thomas Keneally’s about a teacher who becomes dangerously infatuated with his Sudanese student, and Jack Marx’s story written in the form of a letter from a man to his dead wife, which builds disturbingly to its bleak conclusion. But disappointingly the remaining stories, mostly dealing with matters of the heart, fail to fully engage me. Often aiming for humour, they prove to be light, easy to digest but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in substance. The fast food of short fiction.
The book, commissioned as part of the Books Alive campaign, was distributed free during September last year (yes, it’s been gathering dust for a while) with the purchase of any book on the campaign’s list. In previous years the free book has been a short work by a single author, and while the idea to produce an anthology was a good one, for me the result falls short of the mark. And there’s the issue of that title. I expected to be dazzled with pitch-perfect prose and searing storytelling, and was left feeling cheated.
Enjoyable? Yes. A must read? Sadly, no. It’ll be interesting to see what they produce this year.
As antidote that evening I pull out my well-worn copy of Cate Kennedy’s collection, Dark Roots. A master of the short story, her prose reels me in, fills me up. I read every page gluttonously, and leave satiated. Now there’s a must read.