This is a review, written by Charles Cave of The Best Australian Stories 2015.
Selections often say a great deal about their selector: so it is with The Best Australian Stories 2015, Black Inc's annual collection, which this year has been edited by Amanda Lohrey. Most of the stories included in this collection are serious, highly literary, many are meditative, and a number have academic undertones. There is an assumed level of experience and knowledge in the reader: protagonists tend to be educated, superior, with a tendency to detachedly analyse their surroundings.
The stories are all technically good, of course, and some great writers are included here. But overall, there is an emotional intimacy missing, and the similarity of tone can become repetitive. In the hands of these analytical, self-aware narrators, storytelling loses some of its courage.
In Melissa Beit's moving portrayal of gay, rural teens, “The Three Treasures”, for example, the adolescent narrator is uncommonly well-read. “Some things happen without any warning or deliberation,” it begins. “Wu Wei. Action without action.” Two paragraphs later, as he untangles a scroll of barbed wire, he notes, “Its inert coil [is] the shape it apparently wants to hold forever. That's an interesting thought, and if my schoolmate hadn't just shown up, I would probably have sat down and dwelt on it at length.”
Or in Gay Lynch's “Ganymede”, as a professor chats to a teenage boy on a train, she cannot help but analyse him, and seek metaphor in her surroundings: “He sounds articulate. You decide he has a mother and a father who at some point showed an interest in him... you nod and while you think of more questions, you point out the unsettling sight of a black hawk, buffeted by wind, flying backwards past the train window.”
Or in “2 or 3 Things I Know About You”, Claire Corbett's account of a fan secretly reading the diaries of a famous film director, she extrapolates: “Your pregnant wife and the pride you feel seeing her heavy and rounded, weighted with your child. At last. A man exulting in his power to change a woman's body, a woman's life, forever.”
An obvious exception to this is Mark Smith's Griffith-winning “Manyuk,” the final story in the collection, and far and away the best. A skewering of race, class, gender, and dreams, it has authenticity and courage, and a clarity which brings out its pathos. “Even when she was pregnant her legs looked like stilts, too thin to support her swelling body. She likes them though. They remind her that she is only eighteen, that she can still run and dance if she wants to.”
Julie Koh's “The Level Playing Field” is a fresh addition midway through the collection: this is a biting satire of the notion of merit and builds to a dramatic and unexpected finish. It feels risky in a way that few of the other stories included do.
Other excellent inclusions are Balli Kaur Jaswal's “Better Things” which movingly recounts the experience of a recent immigrant, and Ryan O'Neill's “Alphabet,” a confronting analysis of male entitlement in the modern family. Also excellent is Cate Kennedy's “Puppet Show” which subtly investigates the impact of tourism on poorer nations.
Omar Musa's “Supernova” proves he can fit in with the literary establishment, but fans of his 2014 breakout novel Here Come the Dogs might find it conventional.
While there is much to enjoy in this collection, and the standard is as high as one would expect, I was left wishing for more unexpected choices, particularly those from emerging writers or non-literary publications, had been included. The Best Australian Stories sounds like an opportunity to introduce readers to exciting new voices, and to include diversity – an opportunity which does not feel taken here. A broader scope would have given the collection a more visionary appeal.
The Best Australian Stories 2015 is out now through Black Inc.
Charles is a writer and editor from Sydney, whose essays and short fiction have appeared in Bread Wine & Thou, Ampersand, the Rag and Bone Man Salon, and others. Charles likes black coffee, neat whiskey, noir theatre and the moment the lights go down in the cinema.