Laura Elvery burst onto the literary scene with her debut collection of fiction A Trick of the Light in 2018 and is the winner of several literary awards, including Overland’s Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. Her first collection was disturbing in its darkness. Elvery is a master of sleights of hand, leading the reader to feel safe in a narrative and then suddenly undermining the fictional ground her stories are built upon. But where Trick of the Light’s stories, rife with told and untold secrets, can sometimes approach what we might call an Australian gothic, her second collection is lighter, more genre-crossing and, despite its intellectual aspirations, more accessible. Where Trick of the Light was work, her second collection of stories, Ordinary Matter, is play.
Much of this is to do with the framing conceit of the collection, which is highly specific. ‘Since 1901,’ the blurb reads, ‘women have been honoured with Nobel Prizes for their scientific research twenty times, including Marie Curie twice … this inventive story collection is inspired by these women …’ Within this framework, which is adhered to loosely, Elvery’s characters and settings leap about as though having conceded to write to a strict outline she will do as much as she can to rebel against it.
The result is a choppy collection where the flow from story to story can be jarring. Marie Curie goes to the Grand Canyon. A baby washes up on a beach. Old people band together and escape their residential homes in the last phase of their lives. I wrote that Tick of the Light was a ‘triumph of excavation’, but Ordinary Matter is something rather different: an ambitious experiment. The risk of experimentation is that sometimes the products of such work can come across as exercises. But there are moments in this book where we feel the deep sucker-punch of a story well-told, a truth rendered perfectly in fiction.
In ‘Something Close to Gold’ a couple facing infertility is miraculously gifted a baby. ‘Everything looked different now that we were frightened’ Elvery writes, in a brutally accurate portrayal of a darker aspect of parenting. ‘You Run Towards Love’ has a similar moment at the end, and is beautifully drawn. It also walks the line of fiction that openly references relatively current events: ‘Do you think it’s fair that the Minister is on holiday in the snow while the country burns?’ Other stories like ‘Hyperobject’ and ‘The Town Turns Over’ play with a collective first person plural, and are more difficult to enter into.
Overall, Ordinary Matter is a playful and somewhat elusive thing, by an author seemingly determined not to be pinned down by the rules of conventional narrative structure. But Elvery does narrative so well! Whatever she chooses to do on the page in the future will be a welcome addition to Pacific fiction.
The Inheritors is that disappointing thing: a novel with an excellent title and a promising author, from an excellent publisher (Black Inc.) but that somehow misses the mark. French author Hannelore Cayre is a trained lawyer who works at the Paris Court of appeal. She is also a screenwriter and involved in film. But The Inheritors is not cinematic or particularly compelling. It uses the tropes of historical fiction to build a story that cuts back and forth between timescapes, with some interesting subversion of gender coming from our wild main character. But the central premise of the book, a black sheep uncovering unknown branches of her family tree, leads to a lacklustre tale which feels like a long, continuous denouement.
Blanche de Rigny is learning more about the history of her Parisian ancestors. Auguste lives in Paris as the Franco-Prussian war is beginning, in 1870. The historical sections of this work are a pleasure to read but the transitions between the two stories makes for a disjointed narrative. The real story is in the refreshing tone of the main character, Blanche – who, if given free rein, would have adequately provided ample fuel as a lone protagonist. She’s opinionated, disabled, a drunk, and perennially unemployable because of her attitude. Blanche’s characterisation makes for some stunningly entertaining dialogue. Here, Blanche discusses her grandfather’s demise with her mother:
‘It’s the same for old sailors like Grandpa. One day the sea just swallows them up the same way the sea swallows up the birds.’
‘Mum, you don’t have to invent dumb stories for me. I’m not sad. Grandpa never gave a shit about me.’
‘We don’t say shit.
Colourful Blanche aside, The Inheritors is uneven at best, but a good light read.
C Pam Zhang is a blazing new force in American letters. She’s been on talkshows. She’s been on Buzzfeed. She’s a Booker Prize longlistee, and associated with the Iowa school of writing. How Much of These Hills is Gold is her debut novel, described variously as ‘dazzling’ ‘haunting’ and ‘truly remarkable.’ It really is all that, a blistering, almost harmfully good read, with an author dragging us through landscapes that hurt to look at.
How Much of These Hills is Gold tells the story of two Chinese-American siblings during the US Gold Rush. The two children, who are twelve and eleven, carry the body of their dead father with them, looking for a place to bury the body. How Much of These Hills is Gold has been dubbed a revisionist history, as the point of view is that of Chinese, American-born children. Zhang is clear in her intention to put ethnicity, identity and colonisation at the forefront. Before we even get to the contents page we are welcomed with a floating phrase, referenced both directly and thematically in the novel: ‘This land is not your land.’
Lucy and Sam are born into the Wild West of American folklore, but they are shown and told violently throughout this work that they will never be of the land. Furthermore, the white people depicted in this work are not of it, either, instead struggling futilely against the punishing heat and toil of the goldfields, in their quest for wealth.
Zhang spoke to Seth Myers about how she thought the racial elements of the book would be received. She told him she had questioned herself: ‘Is it too maudlin, is it too histrionic in its depiction of racism?’ (Short answer: No). Then, she said, the outcome of the US election proved to her that this story was necessary.
Zhang’s narrative also addresses gender in a way that is skilful and painful and true. There’s a crucial reveal, executed in such a way that everything you think you know about the book is turned on its head – something that will happen again and again in this novel. Zhang is fiercely experimental in this work. Hachette describes it as ‘ferocious’ but her characters and their stories are immediate and compelling and deeply affecting.
Chapters are titled by elements: Salt, Gold, Plum, Blood, Meat, Mud, Blood. There’s a lot of reconstruction and deconstruction here, as the father’s body decomposes: a lot of dissection of the American dream, a lot of undermining and rebuilding. The voice of the characters is extraordinarily original. Zhang has described it as ‘a made-up voice that’s a mix of Wild West slang and pidgin Mandarin in the mouths of immigrant orphans in a speculative Gold Rush California.’ Zhnag says that in part the style was born of the constraints of needing to use gender neutral pronouns, an omission that radically changed sentences structures throughout the book.
She says she’s not sure if she could write this way again. I hope she can.