This is a review by Rafael S.W.
Good writing can help you escape. Whether it’s because of this “strange thing: to hate your home”,or because you simply long to explore different worlds, creative works give you a chance to leave for somewhere else. The escape attempts of the characters throughout The Suburban Review vol. 1 occur with varying degrees of success.
The collection is bookended by personal narratives, the first being ‘Holidays With Men’ by Ellena Savage. This is a combination of a travel essay and a relationship retrospective. While it crafts vivid settings, the men in the piece are quite amorphous, and reading about them is like looking at other people’s travel photos. They’re not very interesting, but they do have lovely sex – “right at the spot where we did it, like evidence of a fake moon landing except in reverse.”
The poetry in the collection contains a similar vibrancy, but is at times less accessible. The poems that aim for simplicity or focus on a single moment are often the stronger pieces. ‘At Edinburgh’ gives a crisp image of Fitzroy which leaves the reader with a happy kind of nostalgia. As from the writer’s bio, it’s fitting that Sapote Hudd’s writing appears “on lampposts and above pedestrian buttons”, as it is accessible and has a strong sense of place. ‘Milk Teeth’ by Jacob Sutherland is also effective in its simplicity, with short stanzas and asymmetrical indentations serving as a visual reminder of a crowded mouth prior to braces.
In contrast is ‘In Four Minds’. As expected from a skilled poet, Jessica Wilkinson gives us some truly arresting lines and images. An extremely fragmented account of a life, there’s sex and sadness in equal measure, with familial relationships woven throughout “like Japanese calligraphy”. However, the sheer abundance of images means that poetry comes at the expense of clarity – “I am half in love with you but I don’t know where it can go. When the pill kicks in the oxygen mask falls down from the overhead compartment.”
‘They’re Screaming!’ and ‘Viz’ share more experimental roots. ‘Viz’ has a playful assonance and draws on a myriad of thoughts and images. ‘They’re Screaming!’ is colourful and has a slight beat poetry tone. They both have nice moments, but are less accessible due to the density of unconnected phrases and intertextual wordplay. ‘The 59 Tram Anti-sonnet’ is experimental in layout, but does clearly invoke the jerky sway of Melbourne’s iconic public transport.
The artwork, and the centre spread collection ‘Book Vandal’, is excellent. “Tai Snaith, Book Vandal” sounds like the induction of a half-hearted criminal, but Snaith’s works are full heart. Pressed between pages like a flower from someone you loved and forgot, you find a goose, clouds and a probably-dandelion. These works are the right blend of skilful whimsy, a Leunig in watercolour. ‘Looking for the Magic’, the comic by Mikael Hattingh, is able to tell a magical story without using words. Much of the narrative lies in his use of hands, but even without that, or the clue of the title, it is still a clear story of a boy’s development.
The drive to escape comes through strongly when looking at the fiction in this collection. The daydream retreat into a fantasy world in ‘Peripatetic Puberty’ by Megan Anderson is achieved through the narrator’s schoolgirl innocence but perhaps also through desperation. This simple story lacks narrative drive but her imaginary transformation has a surreal beauty to it, reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth.
In contrast, Andrew Hutchinson’s ‘Break it Down’ forces us to join the narrator in his attempt to escape addiction and mental illness by drinking and having an affair. The sense of paranoia comes through really well in lines like “emails in your own words forwarded to you”. But the narrator’s limited field of vision means that late revelations are surprising. We find out midway through the story that he has a wife. Later, a child is tossed in too, as if the author was worried there wasn’t already enough sadness to go around.
Continuing the theme of emotionally removed male narrators, ‘Men’s Group/ Guesthouse’, despite a few unanswered questions, is one of the stronger pieces in the collection. There’s a darkness in it, but a beauty as well. “She’s putting on her divorce dress, which looks like something you’d wear if you were being buried in the nineteenth century”. It is a believable piece, and Jack Vening’s narrator has all the sadness and slightly-motivational phrases you’d expect from an unsuccessful men’s group attendee.
Affecting and Australian is Bridget Lutherborrow’s ‘Mango Tree Burial’. Set in a backyard over beers, it manages to avoid any kind of cultural cringe, and instead gives a strong sense of place with a tenderness to back it all up. “Monty’s body crumpled like a jumper someone had thrown on the floor.” The funeral for a family pet provides a chance to see the character interactions in full flight, although it might be nice to have come to more of an understanding of who the omnipresent ‘you’ is by the end of the story.
At the end of the collection is ‘Hairs’ by Sam George-Allen, a personal piece of nonfiction with a wide range of influences. Exploring human hair and how it relates to intimacy, memory, stem cells, magic, and social construct, this could easily be a much longer piece, or even a surreal and intimate short story. There are some striking lines and observations, such as the knowledge that “you can own a piece of someone long dead… immortalised behind glass and hung around your neck.” A strong ending, even if the constant shifting of angles is challenging for the reader who only has hair to hang on to.
The strong parts of this collection shine like a watercolour bird, and those that don’t quite work still have worth as experiment or contrast. For such a new journal, the quality of this volume looks towards the future with promise. The strength in this publication lies overwhelmingly in its ability, in many different ways, take us briefly somewhere else.
Rafael S.W. is a recent graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He writes every single day and has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. A regular contributor to Going Down Swinging online he also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. http://rafaelsw.com