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A U S T R A L I A N B O O K R E V I E W J U LY – A U G U S T 2 0 0 8 5 5
PRIME CUTS: STORIES Mockingbird, $18 pb, 72 pp, 9781740274593
‘These stories were all writtenon the 7.22 between Normanhurstand Central,’ reportsthe author. I fi nd it eminently pleasingto learn that a writer is so driven tocreate that he will suffer through eventhe lurching ignominies of train travelto get words on the page. It speaks ofa higher purpose, one that most commuters,hard-wired to their iPods or upto their eyeballs in Sudoku, will neverrecognise. So, hats off Mr Gaunt, forbucking the trend. His stories – thereare three in this collection – all bearthe mark of a writer with an instinct fornarrative; they are the right shape.Unlike the trains they were written in,however, they tend to follow a haphazardtrajectory, even if a sense ofinevitability pervades. Between set-upand dénouement, the dramatic tensionis confi dently built as his protagonistsbob and drift on the tides of their lives.Gaunt’s treatment of dialogue is particularlyaccomplished. He has a greatear for the pitch of a conversation,and is consistently able to transposethe nuances and tics of natural speechinto written form. In a genre which demandsbrevity, his use of conversation,particularly in the fi rst two stories, isnot simply decorative but revelatory,subtly confessional.Unfortunately, the strength ofGaunt’s storytelling is not always matchedby his prose. There are, throughout,awkward formulations and mixedmetaphors which imperil the effect forthe reader. The ocean, for example,undulates ‘like a living thing’, andone character’s armchair and televisionset are referred to as ‘witheredfruit of her eighty-one years’. Of course,the upside to these complaints is thatthey are easily righted, and I am confident that the gap between prose andstory evident in this collection will beconsiderably shortened by the time hisnext batch is ready.All in all, Prime Cuts representsforty-three minutes out of Gaunt’s wakingday well spent.
Debra AdelaideTHE HOUSEHOLD GUIDE TO DYINGPicador, $32.95 pb, 395 pp, 9780330424257 Why are there so many booksabout death and dying appearingat the moment? Is it aboutthe baby boomers facing up to their mortality?It is certainly a subject that interestsme, and Debra Adelaide’s novel shouldbe compelling. Unfortunately, I foundits determined fl ippancy laboured andgrating. The fi rst-person narrator, Delia,a writer of household guides, is not yetforty. Given a bad prognosis for her breastcancer, she decides that her last workwill be a guide to dying, in which shewill record her physical and emotionaljourney.A self-confessed ‘control freak’ confrontedwith her inevitable loss of control,Delia writes instructions for the ways inwhich her family should live after herdeath. She plans her younger daughter’sfuture wedding (Daisy is nine yearsold), and chooses her husband Joe’s nextsexual partner. To demystify her burial,Delia commissions her own coffi n andhas it placed on the front verandah to familiarisethe family with it. (We know thatJohn Donne practised lying in his.) Deliathen asks her publisher to take photographsof her lying in it sipping a martini.She attends an autopsy, meticulouslynoting the body parts as they are exposed,and later describes a heart transplant.She fi lls boxes with mementoes for her girlsand loads the freezer with pre-preparedfood for ‘afterwards’. She surreptitiouslyplants fl owers in the lawn of her misanthropicneighbour. Most importantly,Delia makes a pilgrimage to Amethyst,the northern country town from whichshe fl ed as a pregnant teenager twentyyears earlier. There, twelve years ago,she experienced the greatest tragedy ofher life. Now her mission is to fi nd anunnamed person in order to achieve spiritualpeace.This novel is well written and rich inliterary allusion. Clearly, Adelaide is aimingto subvert the taboo surrounding deaththat we have in Western culture. But myreaderly response shifted from incredulityto irritation to distaste. The sausagemakingepisode is especially offensive.Christina HillJarad HenryBLOOD SUNSETArena, $29.95 pb, 327pp, 9781741754209 Detective Rubens McCauley hasrecovered almost fully from agunshot wound suffered whileexposing corrupt Melbourne cops: seeHead Shot (2005). Colleague CassieWithers supports McCauley, but hissuperior offi cer wishes him elsewhere.His private life teeters on the brink: hehas neglected his mother who suffereda stroke; he has unresolved issues withhis father; his brother wants him tocounsel his niece about the dangers ofparty drugs; and he hopes to revive hisrelationship with his estranged wife.Smoke from bushfi res across countryVictoria turn the twilit bay at StKilda blood-red, and the uniformedcops pray for rain to ease the summerseason of domestics. McCauley is calledto the back of a café, where the corpseof Dallas Boyd lies. Seeing the syringein Boyd’s arm, McCauley signs the report‘nil suspicious circumstances’, buthe orders a forensic pathology reportand the death becomes very suspiciousindeed.McCauley’s investigation of Boyd’sdeath among the St Kilda squats isabsorbing. While battling bureaucraticsclerosis, McCauley discovers an abusivestepfather, a girlfriend who is aprostitute, one mate who is dead andanother who has burgled a house. Mc-Cauley suspects that Boyd was blackmailingsome dangerous criminals involvedin child pornography.Jarad Henry has created a convincingcharacter in Rubens McCauley.The offi ce politics and the dialogueamong the cops are realistically cynical.McCauley is a complex, fl awed humanbeing and, as a narrator, is vulnerableto doubts, passions and thoughts whichinvite empathy rather than admiration.While McCauley might complainabout an underside of St Kilda invisibleto tourists, Henry’s evocation ofthe music, multiculturalism, waterfrontand alternative atmosphere retains thesuburb’s appeal. Readers will hopethat McCauley reverses his decisionto leave St Kilda and returns to act ascatalyst in another Henry mystery.Tony Smith
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