This is a review of Australian Love Stories, by Daniel Young.

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Australian Love Stories

Ed: Cate Kennedy

304 pages

RRP: $28.99

 

In the 1980s, Foreigner wanted to know what love is; in the early 90s, Haddaway asked “what is love?” These songs may have become lasting ear-worms, but I’m not sure they provided any answers – so I approached Australian Love Stories with this question in mind. Even though I do have some idea of what love is: what does it mean to some of Australia’s finest short story writers? And what, exactly, is a love story?

Australian Love Stories is edited by Cate Kennedy, a gifted storyteller in her own right with a string of publications and awards to her name. This collection is a companion volume to the well-received anthology Australian Love Poems, released last year by Inkerman & Blunt. Kennedy admits in her introduction that although she wishes she could enlighten us with “some new insights and wisdom about the nature of love”, she is still “fumbling for the light switch, like every other human being on the planet”. So much for answers. Thankfully the stories in this collection do provide a remarkable array of insights into what love is: it’s everything; it’s all around us; it’s what brings us together, drives us apart, leads to hate, ruin, jealousy; it’s what we live – and die – for.

The collection contains twenty-nine stories from established and emerging writers, arranged into seven broad themes with beautiful titles drawn from the stories within: That Sensuous Weight; Why Cupid is Painted Blind; Adrift in Shards and Splattered Fruit; There are Tears, There is Hubris; There is A Damnation and Regret; A Sweetly Alien Creature; Firm as Anchors, Wet as Fishes; and The Unbroken Trajectory of Falling. These sections cover a spectrum of love in many forms, including its early blossoming, blind desire, same-sex love, heartbreak, parental love, and love affairs. Cate Kennedy refers to this careful arrangement of stories as a “narrative arc of the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself, and us in the process”. Ordering disparate pieces within an anthology is a difficult task; thankfully, one of the successes of Australian Love Stories is the at-once coherent and yet diverse treatment of love that this ordering provides.

Bruce Pascoe opens the collection with “Dawn”, an erotic story about a man waking up next to his partner and feeling a sense of forbidden excitement even after many years together. The characters’ age is conveyed with poetic description:

“Her hair never went grey but sedately transmuted into a silver gold. I lift a strand away from her eyes and she murmurs again, so again I watch and wait like a thief.”

The narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, an effective technique that carries a delicate combination of aching love and mischievousness:

“Do you see why I am telling you this? It would be impossible to tell anyone else. Something deep within me caves as if a vacuum has been created every time I feel the slip of that sensuous weight. This is my depravity.”

Kathryn Lomer’s “Crush” shows us desperate loneliness in a woman who sends herself a valentine’s card – “That’s just like your writing, Mummy” – and visits the hairdresser simply to be touched. The story does of course end in love, and I expected the cynic within me to rage against the saccharine, but I was surprisingly touched by its aura of hope.

We all know that love can also go wrong. Jon Bauer’s “Swallow” opens with the boy narrator hearing his parents argue, “the kitchen argument going up a notch on the Beaufort scale, the parental vitriol bending the spruce trees over in the wind” – and yet even here there is hope to be found in the boy’s care and love for an injured bird.

Most of the stories avoid direct philosophising on the nature of love, and rightly so. Good fiction leaves space for the reader to find their own meaning and, in the case of this collection, their own romantic insights. The final section contains the most reflective writing, suggesting perhaps that love can only be seen clearly in hindsight. Megg Minos writes in “Need Gone Today”:

“She tells him what she thinks about hearts, how they sit inside the body and hold life inside them, growing full, bigger, sometimes breaking. It’s bound to be a strong sensation, a feeling that rends the chest open and lays bare what is inside, makes the person breathe more deeply and laugh more loudly.”

This passage is handled with a subtle poetic beauty, adding emotional weight to the plot without going too far. It’s to the credit of the collection as a whole that such reflections are never overdone.

This modern anthology of Australian Love Stories doesn’t contain the over-baked and earth-shattering love of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Antony would “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (1.1.33-34), and Cleopatra demands her messengers send him “every day a several greeting / Or I’ll unpeople Egypt” (1.4.77-78). Nor does it contain the kind of moralistic, misogynistic love of 19th century literature, in which female protagonists like Anna Karenina simply had to be punished for their transgressions. The anthology does, however, resemble Anna Karenina in its ability to present multiple contrasting relationships and evoke the complexity and uncertainty of love.

A short review can’t do justice to the diversity of this collection, and choosing stories to highlight from twenty-nine is a fool’s errand. Not every story spoke to me deeply, and each reader will find their own favourites. For an emerging writer, a collection like this is an opportunity to observe and feast upon a smorgasbord of narrative techniques. I recommend dipping in and out of this collection over the course of a month: it’s perhaps too much love to take in all at once. The pieces are generally quite short, and while I did at times wish for a lengthier engagement, it was rewarding as a writer to be able to quickly pick up a story of under ten pages and then have the time to go back and reflect on exactly what made it tick.

Ultimately, Australian Love Stories are about how people relate to each other, successfully and unsuccessfully, and how we navigate the complexities of desire, coupling, family, parenthood, betrayal and loss. Publisher Donna Ward and editor Cate Kennedy have done a commendable job of turning 445 submissions into a coherent and diverse collection of love stories.

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Daniel Young has had short fiction published in Issue Two of Hello Mr. Magazine and flash fiction in Seizure and Cuttings Journal. His story “The Jazz Band” is forthcoming in Issue 16 of Mascara Literary Review. He is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal.

 

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