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.