One of the literary highlights of 2015 for me was the number of superb collections of short stories published (Adam Johnston’s Fortune Smiles and Colm McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking being two standouts). Now Australian author Fiona McFarlane has given me hope that this year is going to be as good.
McFarlane’s collection, The High Places, brings together thirteen stories that are highly original, often haunting and occasionally slightly disturbing. Although I wanted to race through them in long hit, I soon forced myself to leave a gap between each to allow time for their substance to settle, the frequently tantalizing ambiguity to be fully appreciated.
These are not literary snapshots. Each is a rich, fully formed story of a life rich in complexity and nuance, only not novel length. They all feature Australians although, in the peripatetic nature of Australians, they are often travelling overseas. We go, for example, from the drought- stricken Outback to an island in the Pacific, tourist Greece to the byways of middle-class England. Although McFarlane has said that the stories, written over a period of 10 years, are not linked, there are discernable leitmotifs including the unbalancing impact of outsiders and the sense of alienation that exists within families.
In the opening story, Exotic Animal Medicine, young vet Sarah leaves her post wedding celebrations to drive to attend a friend’s sick cat. On a remote country road she is involved in a crash and stays with the seriously injured elderly driver while her husband goes for help that never arrives.
In Good News for Modern Man (my current favourite) a scientist specializing in molluscs who made his name when he discovered the only colossal squid in the world (aka Mable), now plots with the ghost of Charles Darwin to free her from her shallow-water prison in an inlet on a Pacific Island.
McFarlane’s evocation of the Australian landscape is so powerful you can practically smell the gum trees. Those Americans Falling from the Sky describes the impact of a small rural Australian community of the arrival of an American parachute regiment during WW2 seen through the eyes of a young girl coping with the re-marriage of her mother. And The High Places gives an almost too intense insight into the social and mental impact of the long periods of drought that can devour Australia.
Watch out for two quiet gems: Buttony, one of the shortest stories, about the repercussions from a child’s dissection during a doting teacher’s playground game and Man and Bird how the great hopes piled on the rather scruffy shoulders of the newly-appointed Reverend Adams cause a surreal flight of fancy.
McFarlane’s debut novel The Night Guest, a magical realist thriller released in 2014, about identity and memory, went on to be an international success. She said recently that although it had started out as a short story she realized that it needed to get bigger. You can’t help but wonder whether any of the stories from The High Place will grow over time.
The High Places is published by Penguin Random House.