Book of the Week: ‘I began to think less about sex and more about tableware’
Owen Marshall, a master of the short story, is awed by a collection of stories by Whanganui writer Airini Beautrais
The New Zealand short story seems to be flourishing, especially in the hands of our younger women writers, such as Alice Tawhai, Courtney Sina Meredith, Colleen Maria Lenihan, and Laura Borrowdale, and now we can add Airini Beautrais for her collection Bug Week and Other Stories.
Her stories are not for the faint-hearted: direct, hard hitting, satirical and sometimes accusing. Men do not come out well in most of these tales, generally appearing gross, selfish and sexually exploitative. "Trashing the flowers" deals unsparingly with abuse and marital rape. "A quiet death" has a harrowing description of a doctor sexually defiling the corpse of a former female patient. Beautrais can be cruel also in the presentation of her own gender, as shown in this summation of women teachers: "No one would ever want to make love to a teacher. She is a warning to girls of what they might become if they play their cards wrong. A dehydrated tortoise with a searching neck or a fat, furtive lesbian. She wears long skirts and several petticoats and smells of chalk. She is the repository of dead dreams."
She is also aware of the need for economy in this genre and makes deft and confident cuts to avoid time lags, and moves nimbly from one character to another. There is little languid prose, the sentences generally short and snappy: "Grace got up early because they were going to the museum. She got ready for school with time to spare. She didn't sprint for the bus. She stood at the end of her driveway, running her shoe through the gravel. She made wave patterns, circles."
"After a full hour of whipping the bank manager, Esme lay down beside him on the bed" - Airini Beautrais
The collection focuses on relationships in a wry,somewhat cynical manner that provides both recognition and humour for the reader, and the author's talent as a poet is also in evidence in some impressive passages. Although most pieces are from a female point of view and realistic in mode, there is a variety of presentation, including the appearance of a southern royal albatross at an open-mic night to warn against despoliation of the sea.
Beautrais is good with beginnings, understanding the power of direct entry and intrigue in short fiction. The title story begins thus: "At a certain age I began to think less about sex and more about tableware." Another begins, "After a full hour of whipping the bank manager, Esme lay down beside him on the bed."
Not all the stories are successful. A few have a tendency to flippancy, repetition, stereotypes and preoccupation with the squalid, but I wish to concentrate on two fine stories – "Psycho ex" and "A summer of scents." The latter is set in a housing estate in post Communist Germany. High summer and the mainly aging residents going about their insignificant, isolated lives – Frau Dickmann, Frau Muller, Herr Rabe, misfit Jurgen Schulz, suicidal Martin Engel and others. Each is put under scrutiny in a way that is both clinically detached, yet ultimately sympathetic. It is a story that perceptively explores the meaning of community and life's existentialist nature. Ultimately the scents of summer are displaced by the stench of Martin's body lying undiscovered in his rooms, and the other residents are dispersed by the authorities.
She writes, "By the nineteenth of June the smell was overpowering. Nothing else could be inhaled without a whiff of it: the morning coffee, the newly cut grass in the adjacent park. Even Herr Rabe, with his ex-smoker's damaged nose, could not bear it. Frau Dickmann came pounding on his door one afternoon, almost in tears. 'It must be rats,' she told him."
"Psycho ex" (published at ReadingRoom) is the best of Beautrais's personal relationship stories and an impressive, convincing portrayal of the narrator's inability to stop loving the man who has broken up with her and married someone else.
In the evenings she goes for runs, always telling herself she won't go near Mount Victoria and the street where he lives, but always she is drawn there: "I'm on your street. But I'll pretend I'm not: I won't look at your house. The psycho ex. The stalker. That is not who I am. I am simply a person who loves you, loves you deeply… The thing about love is that it isn't insane. Love is the purest, sanest thing any of us will ever feel."
Eventually she is discovered spying on the house and runs away in the darkness followed by her former lover, who, when he catches up with her in the moving ending, shows compassion and understanding rather than anger.
The narrator concludes, "No matter how many wives you have, I'll always be your first wife, the one who never stops loving you. You've never held me tighter. I have nothing for you. I have nothing to say to you. You say nothing to me. When you have finished holding me, I will get up and walk away."
Stories of this quality are a pleasure to read and I look forward to more from this talented, often acerbic, writer.
Bug Week and Other Stories by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.
* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *
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