Review: ‘The Best Australian Stories 2011’

Cover, 'The Best Australian Stories 2011'The Best Australian Stories 2011
Cate Kennedy (ed)
Black Inc.

If the job of fiction is, as many suggest, to flesh out place and cement it socially, physically and culturally in time, then, despite the variety of voice and subject matter, The Best Australian Stories 2011 succeeds with Southern Cross stars.

This is not to say that all the stories are perfect or, indeed, all facets of Australian life are represented in them, but there is a quintessentially recognisable state-of-being that renders the collection absolutely worthwhile, not to mention good reading. Short stories a cut above the rest are bound to be a delight. So allow me, as Cate Kennedy did so well in her introduction, the privilege of pulling over the menu board to tell you of some of my favourites and some that I favoured a little less in this year’s Best Of in short fiction.

It’s wise to start strong, and exceptionally good are the first three to appear in the anthology. ‘Duty of Care’ by Joanne Riccioni is so well drawn it’s hard to read it without the pathos felt by the protagonist lifting from the page and weaving about inside you. The delicateness of ‘Carry On’ by Gretchen Shirm leaves the reader in no doubt about what a mother might do to protect her son, while ‘Blow In’ by Rebecca Giggs intricately divulges what a mother feels about a daughter’s imminent marriage to someone she’s not convinced about.

Further into the volume there’s the very funny ‘Road To Nowhere’ by Russell King and the beautifully written ‘Shooting The Fox’ by Marion Halligan. Jennifer Mills is razor sharp in her depiction of Australia in the early days after white-settlement in her story ‘Look Down With Me’.

And Karen Hitchcock’s ‘Forging Friendship’ is mercurial and brutal all at once, while ‘This Awful Brew’ by Julie Chevalier takes you into the visiting room of a prison through the eyes of a very honest narrator who carries her own demons.

The weaker stories fall short perhaps for reasons of taste, but I can’t help feeling there’s a kind of malaise that creeps in to a few. They lack the arc a story needs to engage a reader or, conversely, the denseness of detail that intrigues. ‘Street Sweeper’ by Leah Swann and ‘The Gills Of Fish’ by Karen Manton come to mind. Even ‘The Anniversary’ by Deborah Fitzgerald lacks either the punch or the delicateness that might have saved it. However, if the benchmark is to provide something picture-true of Australian life, then certainly there is only success. The snapshot even these three deliver is a wonderful way to see ourselves as if looking in with telescopic eyesight.

Things quickly pick up and the collection finishes well with Sharon Kent’s ‘Jumping for Chicken’ and Catherine Cole’s ‘Home’, both accomplished and satisfying stories. They complete a stimulating read. All in all, a great way to take a substantial dose of inspiration.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I counted thirteen stories discussed cursorily in this review (ten along a positive register / three negatively) out of thirty-one contributors listed on the Black Inc website. Hardly great incentive to first pick the book up, and then buy it, in order to experience its “quintessentially recognisable state-of-being that renders the collection absolutely worthwhile”. I might consider buying it though to see where the fault lies (more fool me).

  2. Hi Dennis, sounds like I might have disappointed you by not saying enough. The general comments do relay to all the stories in the collection and the specific comments pick out my favourites and the ones I found weakest. The other eighteen or so fall in between. If you like short fiction and, even more importantly, are writing it, then, to get a snapshot of what’s been produced over 2011, The Best Aus. Stories is a very good place to go.

    1. Thanks Finn, for the generosity of your reply. In retrospect, I may have been somewhat churlish in not first acknowledging the prodigious effort on your part in both reading the stories and taking the time to convey what you considered the presiding spirit of the volume. I appreciated that.

      That said, I did consider your review long on rhetoric and short on story coverage and critique, but that’s just me. I would have tackled the task differently, but he, viva la difference. (Reviewing as did allowed me perceive other ways of tackling such a task.) Kind regards.

  3. Thanks so much for this informative review, Finn.

    I always feel a little disappointed in the Best Ofs not because the writing necessarily lets them down but because so few new writers fail to make the grade. I can’t help wondering if it’s because newer writers are lacking in craft or that established names sell more copies. Nevertheless, it must be a daunting task to whittle hundreds of stories down to a handful.

    Still, I look forward to dipping into this edition for the snapshot it provides of Australian writing early in the 21st century.

  4. Hi Trish, it’s a good point to make. I’m not an expert on who is new and who isn’t but it would seem that at least a quarter of the writers are fairly new to the writing game. What interested me about reading it was that some of the people with more experience and more credentials, didn’t, in my opinion anyway, write the strongest stories. The task however, as you’ve alluded to, to pick out 31 from A LOT must be daunting. It’s also important to try to keep in mind, it’s only one person’s choice, and although they’ve done their best, no doubt, to pick the best, it is about taste as well as craft in the end.

  5. Thanks for the review, Finn. I was one of those that made it to the top shortlist this year (the top 70, I am told) and last year, and like you suggested in one of your comments, I bought the books to see where/what I lacked.

    Some of the stories completely blew me away (and left me wringing my hands in awe induced envy) but some others left me feeling ho-hum. It does come down to craft and taste, you are right. Cate Kennedy said something to the effect that her deciding factor was choosing stories where the characters followed her out of the room, long after she had finished reading them, tugging her at her sleeve, demanding attention.

    I think it comes down to that in the end, doesn’t it? We all remember different things. Apologies for the ramble 🙂

  6. Hi Vaiju, well done for making it onto the shortlist. I’m sure it’s not easy to get so close and then be left out. It sounds as if you’ve got a good attitude though and reading the stories that do get chosen is, in the end, the best thing to do.
    I was going to put a link up for you showing you a review of the Best Aus. Stories 2011 and The Sleepers Almanac 7 in the Canberra Times, but it’s not online. What’s interesting about the review is that the reviewer, while praising the good writing in both, clearly prefers the Almanac. (The reviewer also liked some of the stories in the Best Aus Stories that I didn’t.) But the point I would make about this is that while it must be good for a writer’s CV (and their confidence) to get a story in the Best Aus. Stories, it’s not necessarily the ‘best’ collection around.
    That augers well for writing in general. Keep up the positivity and I didn’t detect any rambling.

  7. This entire review and no one has mentioned the best story of them all? Nick Smith’s everybody wins on kid planet is, at least, a breath of fresh air, something that says you can smile it is ok to smile and so you smile.

Comments are closed.