How short (or long) can a short story be? The length of a literary piece of string, perhaps? Definitions of the short story are as varied as those of the genre itself. We have often heard the comment that we sometimes enter a short story after the first act and leave before ‘The End’. And then there is the advice given to writers to ‘get in and get out’ of the short story they are writing quickly. With these comments in mind, an oversimplified understanding of the short story is that it is too short to tell the whole story, and that what we produce is a hurried cameo of the greater whole.
Josephine Rowe’s short stories are often quite short: less than a page in length, sometimes only a paragraph consisting of a few lines. With the arrival of her previous collection, How A Moth Becomes A Boat (Hunter Publications, 2010) Rowe dazzled readers with stories averaging two or three pages in length. The stories produced disturbing and evocative portraits of domestic life, relationships both fractured and loving, and marginal landscapes that were genuinely haunting. The book was passed around and spoken glowingly about by readers, particularly those amongst us who favour the short form over the novel.
In her new collection, Tarcutta Wake, Rowe has not let her devoted readers down. She is a wonderful talent who deserves to be read more widely. Short story collections do not sell nearly as well as novels (although there are occasional exceptions) and are often neglected when the annual prizes come around. And with the scrapping of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, one of the few awards directly targeting short story collections is now gone.
Rowe’s stories have been described as ‘fragments’ or ‘short short stories’, as examples of the sub-genre of ‘micro fiction’ or even a variance of the ‘prose-poem’. Labels aside, which are hardly helpful, there is a common element in all of Rowe’s stories: they are perfectly weighted and whole. The twenty-five stories in the new collection are more varied in length than those in How A Moth Becomes A Boat, with the superb title story being one of her longest to date. But again the single page/single paragraph story is present, with each as complete as they need to be.
In the ten-line story ‘Cotton’, we realise that there is more that could be told. It is clear that there is imaginative life for the story outside the story. Yet importantly, nothing is missing from the story itself. As with many of Rowe’s stories, it conjures mystery and curiosity. It draws us to objects, such as a pair of bronzed baby shoes and a lock of hair, that are both vaguely familiar and secretively unreachable. This story could be described as a ‘snapshot’ of a life ended. But that would not do the story justice. ‘Cotton’ epitomises Rowe’s ‘briefer’ creations. They are portraits filling every corner of the frame with as few words as necessary.
A favourite story for me in the new collection is ‘In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing’. I have read it several times already, and I’m sure it will become a piece of writing with infinite layers of discovery and enjoyment. It is reminiscent of my response to the poetry I enjoy – those that I get at some level on a first reading, often simply composed, not unlike a melodious hook in a great pop song I might hear for the first time. And yet when I read the poem again (and again) I find something new.
This story of Rowe’s has produced a similar response, created through ephemera and images of domestic familiarity and comfort – the backyard of thriving tomato plants, the kitchen sink, musty books and the voice of a neighbor singing over the side fence. It is a story of attachment, yearning and eventual loss; of people, the stuff we cling to and love beyond any material value; and the destruction of community – too often a hackneyed image, but not here in the gentle hands of a great writer.
After reading Tarcutta Wake I was left thinking about – even haunted by – the threat of disconnection from people and place. I hopped in my battered car and drove to the Coburg cemetery where I walked to the graves of my grandmother and great-grandmother, to where they lay buried under a gum tree high on a hill. I noticed that their headstone had collapsed. I righted it, ran my fingers across the letters of their names and sat on the grass, thankful for Josephine Rowe’s writing that reminded me of where I needed to be.