TEXT review


Strange tales of strange lands

review by Sandra Burr

Patrick West
The World Swimmers
The International Centre for Landscape and Language for CREATEC, Edith Cowan University, Mt Lawley, WA 2011
ISBN 9780987054517
Pb 68pp AUD19.95

 

Patrick West’s The World Swimmers is a slim volume containing only nine short stories. These stories, however, span time and place, from a present day account of a day trip to the Little Desert National Park near Nhill in Victoria, to early nineteenth-century Budapest. It is a curious collection, full of surprise and subtlety and some very accomplished writing, but not all the stories work as well as they could.

As well as the geographic and historic location of the stories, West experiments with voice, populating his tales with a diversity of narrators, including a young emotionally repressed Japanese woman in ‘Shame’ and a schoolboy on the cusp of understanding the vagaries of life in ‘Greenwood’. In ‘Nhill’, West introduces a fussy, pedantic male protagonist who is nameless; indeed, the other character in the story is only ever referred to as ‘my wife’. The use of this device imbues the story with a strange, detached ambience, which tends to alienate the reader until the ending reveals the author’s intent. Sometimes, the writing is so dense and convoluted that it begs to be read out loud in order to make sense of it, and I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing in such a small collection. ‘Nhill’,for example, contains one of the longer sentences to be found in a short story, when the narrator, reflecting on the gusting wind says:

The next moment, however, this had curiously seemed not to be happening. Precisely the absence of even the weakest breeze now manifested itself as decisive, as if the trees that we could see here and there on the landscape, not needing for their equilibrium to be rooted and heavy and thus not being so, were no longer rebelling against their connection with the lowest part of the visible desert, but were touching it with only the smallest possible touch, nothing of themselves actually buried into the loose soil. (3)

‘Dear Semmelnazi’ is a story of profound disappointment and misplaced love told from the point of view of a Hungarian midwife in the same stiff, formal, detached style that reverberates throughout the collection. It is an unusual and compelling tale, with themes of adoption and incest that Craig Thompson addresses in his recently published graphic novel, Habibi (Allen & Unwin, 2010). Many of West’s stories contain sexual references, sometimes overt and sometimes less so, which is further illustrative of the clever but understated way that the author has attempted to unify this disparate collection. In the last story in the book, ‘The World Swimmers’, West has sown indirect references to many of the preceding stories by repeating previously used words, phrases and images, resulting in a similarly unifying effect.

West also likes to play with style. ‘Nhill’ and ‘Shame’ are sparse, desiccated linear narratives, while ‘U’ not only introduces another geographical dimension, but through its dreamlike, elliptical, poetic, pantoum-like style is quite mesmerising. West is a confident storyteller, and this collection shows his writerly skills to great effect. His poetic descriptions crackle with atmosphere and hum with the evocative scents of grass, sea and soil, for example, ‘a prospect of palest olive’ (4), together with compelling imagery, ‘… her eyes are glowing like oceans of snow, like grasslands of the moon’ (68).

He likes to surprise his readers with unexpected twists and shock endings that are sometimes needed to make sense of the story to which they are attached. Such endings can also work to lift the occasional pedestrian story to greater heights. This device doesn’t always work, with ‘Now You Know What Women Have to Put Up With All the Time’being one of the less successful pieces in the collection. The intentionally muddy plot feels more contrived than clever, and the heavy-handed ending is both predictable and unsurprising. It does feel, at times, that West is consciously trying to manipulate his readers. ‘The Japanese Stripper from the Inland Sea’ is an odd piece that seems to want to teach us some kind of a lesson, but exactly what that lesson is, is not clear. The title story, ‘The World Swimmers’, is futuristically strange, being both lyrical and mysterious with more of West’s beautiful imagery but also intriguingly incomprehensible sentences like, ‘Now you are about to come to the end of the beginning of your journey’ (62).

Despite his obvious talent, this collection does not quite jell for me. The author is too present, and the stories feel self-consciously collated. It is as if West is attempting to present a portfolio that will showcase his abilities as a writer, but the overall effect is claustrophobic and too intense for such a small collection. The inclusion of a few more stories, and perhaps some longer ones, may have softened the impact.

Despite this, it is an interesting collection, and as soon as I began reading I wanted to know more about the author. Unfortunately, the book contains no author details except for a list of places where West has been previously published. An internet search found Dr West to be a Senior Lecturer in Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University as well as a research leader for a major project on the volcanic landscape of south-west Victoria and south-east South Australia, which explains not only his passion for the intricacies of storytelling and the written word but also his fascination with landscape.

Aesthetically, the book falls a little short: the production values are uninspiring with small, faint print, and the cover is drab and unappealing with an illustration that appears to have little bearing on the stories inside. Despite these quibbles, this is a fascinating body of work although I believe West’s next collection will be even better.

Sandra Burr PhD, is an Adjunct Associate Professional at the University of Canberra, where she teaches creative writing and cultural research.

 

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TEXT
Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
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