The long and short of it

2014 Update. Since blogging this in 2011 and writing my review of Liam Davison’s Collected Stories a few years before that, I wish to acknowledge the passing of Davison and his wife on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in Ukraine. I, like many, am saddened by the loss of such a talented story teller. I am honoured to have been able to read his works and communicate my admiration of them to others. May his legacy of stories remain to ‘unreliably chart’ his passions, talent and beliefs forever.

I’ve always read short stories. Well, at least for as long as I’ve been reading things. I never really thought about it though. Whether they were the Golden Books of my childhood or shorts I found later from Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, or a collection of Korean stories I found as a teenager (called Meetings and Partings edited by Chung Chong-Wha) and at university Jorge Luis Borges and Nathaniel Hawthorne – they remained with me (and too many others to mention). Yet I didn’t really think about the form until I started a writing course a few years ago. There I was introduced to contemporary writers like Cate Kennedy and John Holton (Affairs of Men and Snowdropping), and from then on I was hooked on writing short stories. Not that there’s a living to be made from it these days, as even Robert Silvester said at Aussiecon 4 last year.  Still, there are people like me who write short stories and read them.

Lots of writers go on about how writing a short story is more difficult than a novel. I think of a short story as an ice dancing performance: minutely choreographed and balanced, lyrical, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful and a thing unto itself, but when it goes wrong, sometimes bloody, terribly off-putting and upsetting.

This collection below I reviewed a few years ago and was published in the TAFE journal the students produced. Liam Davison is a writer deserving of more attention and his writing falls into the lyrical rather than upsetting category. If you manage to find a copy, I hope you enjoy.

Collected Stories by Liam Davison

Liam Davison’s previous publications included the novels The White Lady and most recently The Betrayal. His second novel Soundings won the National Book Council Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993. His books have also been shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award, The Age Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier’s Awards[1]. Those familiar with the novels of Liam Davison will recognise these stories from his preoccupations – perhaps obsessions – with water, rural Australia and the ways in which landscape and seascape shape characters and events. But he is also interested in changing family relationships (The Observatory, Lessons in Genealogy, Floundering), as well as memory and history (The Inconspicuous Bike, The Flight Charts of Amelia) and childhood (Heart Stone).

The Collected Stories of Liam Davison are neatly arranged into the chapters and from this the reader can detect some of the afore-mentioned preoccupations of the author. The chapters: The Shipwreck Party, Land Sounds and The Landscape of Fiction.

Although the title is Collected Stories, the offerings under the heading ‘The Landscape of Fiction’ are ruminative essays on the more obvious influences of place and nature in stories such as The Shipwreck Party (first published 1989). They offer personal insights into aspects of the author’s background and become interesting stories in themselves – in Heart Stone (first published 1995), the narrator discusses the way in which writing The White Woman became an act of love as well as an examination of love and obsession: the ideal and the real. The author also acknowledges that by his account The White Woman is the novel that comes closest to a love story. To do this the narrator uses recollections of his childhood passions. Indeed, memory, time, childhood and place suffuse both the short stories and the purported essays. In the space of a page or two, these essay/stories capture his loves and fears about life, his craft and his family. In The Flight Charts of Amelia (first published 1997), the narrator draws upon his own experiences as a father to his four-year-old daughter Amelia: ‘I will wake in the night perhaps, some years further on, distressed to find her gone and will cling to the unreliable charts of what she was once like.’[2] The narrator links these moments in the life of his relationship to moments in the life of Amelia Earhart (perhaps her namesake) and her mother, based on historical documentation, and private letters.

In the chapter Land Sounds the stories are simple and short (usually about half a page) meditations on aspects of rural life, not only its sounds, but its imagery, the past and future and people’s reaction to it. In Stringing the Paddocks (first published 1999) a son helps his father create – or mend – a wire fence and also define his family’s relationship with the land, and with the future. These short prose pieces present ordinary rural scenes with clarity and poetry.  They are lyrical odes to worlds almost gone – but not quite forgotten – in Wood (1999) it is the sound of a sawmill with its ‘quiet men – lopped and stumped, wielding brooms waiting each day for the saws to stop.’[3] The short, short stories of this chapter are told with a melancholy joy that at once celebrates and commemorates that which was once everyday: people, buildings and tanks that have become one with the land.

Under the chapter headed ‘The Shipwreck Party’ is collected some of the longer pieces. These stories introduce some of the themes explored later in the text under Land Sounds. For instance, in Floundering the relationship between father and son is altered forever through the boys’ new ability to mistrust ‘the way things looked on the surface.’[4] The bond between man and child that had been established through estuary night fishing is broken forever. The symbol of this destruction is the arrival of the dredging machine, which has disturbed the flounder, introduced string rays and ‘dredged up’ recollections of the father’s childhood to haunt his son. This is perhaps the most evocative short story of the chapter. The short story The Inconspicuous Bike is the story of the search for the narrators’ uncle – and his bike – told with wistful affection for the Uncle. His bikes and the faded photographs record and also fail to record his history. Floundering and The Inconspicuous Bike are perhaps the most memorable stories of this chapter.

Davison’s writing is understated, as Marjorie Ward says of The Betrayal: ‘If you are seeking florid writing about action and violence you will not find it in Davison’s work.’[5] Similarly Collected Stories all revolve around quiet but sometimes powerful episodes of awakening – to the truth, to the nature of things, to the sounds of the land and the sea – in a manner that has been characterised as ‘spare and deceptive,’[6] and are a pleasure to ponder.

Liam Davison – Collected Stories is published by Queensland University Press, Australia, 2001.

[1] Details from Collected Stories – Author biography.

[2] Collected Stories p209

[3] Op cit p135

[4] Op cit p44

[5] The Betrayal reviewed by Marjorie Ward, Quadrant, Nov 1999 v43 i11 p85.

[6] Quoted from David English in the Weekend Australian.

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