The colour of kerosene and other stories
Wakefield Press 2012
I read this collection, cover to cover, on the Australia Day holiday. It happens to also be the birthday of my grandmother, Alma, and my son, Drew. So, like it or not, I did have something to celebrate. Several motifs defining white Australia’s national day are present in this short story collection – alcohol, the looming threat of violence, and a sense of spiritual and emotional disconnection. While the characters and stories produced by Cameron Raynes could be described as quintessentially Australian, they share nothing with the mantra paraded around each January 26.
Through his stories Raynes digs deep into our collective psyche, juggling the tensions that exist between black and white, men and women, and the abrasive standoff between city and bush. The stories are perfectly pitched. Not much happens, and yet so much happens, in an emotional sense. The stories rarely produce a resolution, in the traditional beginning, middle and end structure we may be used to. And yet, each story satisfies because the endings are nuanced and contemplative.
Many of the characters are displaced or fractured. They are living lives they did not expect to have, often in far-flung locations they did not expect to be in; the ex-public servant, the ex-university academic, the young Aboriginal girl incarcerated hundreds of kilometres away from her home community. The tension is so palpable in some of the stories that I began to anticipate a Wake In Fright explosion of violence. Generally it does not come (with the telling exception of the ending of ‘Semaphore’, which resulted in me laying on the loungeroom floor, wrapped around my ten-year-old bull terrier, Ella – this may not be a story for dog lovers).
The tension in the superb stories ‘The colour of kerosene’ and ‘Conditional release’ is in the unspoken and the unknown, whether articulated through the puzzlement of a taxi driver unsure if he’d been ripped off or the drained pragmatism of those in the outback ‘welfare’ industry. As with many of the human characters, landscape in some stories is both stuck and mute, in a Eurocentric sense, and potentially more violent as an outcome. But violence does not come, in a tangible form. It is surely there psychologically, but what marks both stories specifically, and is a quality of Raynes writing and the collection more generally, is a sense of resignation. People do what they do because they cannot bring themselves to contemplate an alternative.
Other stories in the collection work superbly with domestic life. Here Raynes writes with acute tenderness. ‘The Cap Between the Sandbars’, a story about a father battling with depression while his children war with each other is certainly a ‘not much (but everything) happens’ story. It is quiet and gently paced with plenty of breathing room for the reader to mull over the story while in the story. ‘The Smell of Touch’, the story of an elderly couple, with flashbacks to their shared childhood, is another story told on the quiet that hits a perfect note. This one contains more humour than other stories, and produces both a grimacing cross-your-legs image and the gentlest of endings.
It is not easy to write about Australian culture without falling into jingoism and cliché, particularly when a writer moves away from the urban seaboard, into the regional cities, small towns, abandoned communities and shadows. While ‘The Battlers’ have been kidnapped by Canberra – the beans being counted by spin- doctors – with The Colour of Kerosene and other stories Cameron Raynes has created an ensemble cast who are not particularly pleasant or unpleasant. They’re not winners or losers (with the exception of the dog hinted at above). They are both drifters and shiftless. And if not all of them are honest, they are drawn with skill and originality.