TEXT review

Moments of realisation

review by Helen Gildfind


Georgia Richter (ed)
The Kid on the Karaoke Stage & Other Stories
Fremantle Press, 2011
ISBN 9781921696831
Pb 272pp AUD27.95


Richter introduces this collection as one that straddles both fiction and creative non-fiction, with both genres sharing the need to tell a story well and to be, on some fundamental level, ‘true’ (8). Richter recounts how the stories made her reflect upon how ‘we turn to writing to crystallise moments of realisation’ (7, 8). By telling stories ‘to make sense of who we are’ we create something in which others can see glimpses of themselves (10). This collection does these things for reader and writer alike, but it also seems to be the product of an unstated agenda to publish stories that in some way – through their content or author – give readers glimpses of the people and places of Western Australia.

The book begins with Sj Finch’s story (whose title names the collection) where the narrator searches for the relationship between performance, pretence and truth amongst the happier memories of his adolescent past, when drinking and fooling with his mates made him feel that ‘Everything Is Okay With The World’ (19). Bruce L Russell’s ‘A Night in Hell’ also follows a teenager’s travels through the seductive – and dangerous – world of camaraderie created by men and drink.

Peter Docker’s ‘Funeral Song’ sees Irish Australians farewell a man whose death not only shows them how little they knew of him, but how little they know of the Aboriginal people who mourn for him in the dust outside of the church. Alice Nelson’s ‘The Pearl Divers’ seamlessly integrates story and history to expose the reality behind the ‘brilliantly spun mythologies’ (211) of the colonials who built fortunes from the spilt blood of immigrant and Aboriginal pearlers of 1920s Broome. Andrew Relph’s travels also leave him reflecting upon alienation and community, and choice and destiny. His random encounters with the psychologically and physically maimed leaving him wondering: ‘Yes – you get what you get. But we are all affected by what everyone else gets’ (238). What the protagonists in Natasha Lester’s ‘One Week Later’ and Paula Gallagher’s ‘Rebyonak’ get are unwanted pregnancies, with each female character confronted first by the fact of their pregnancies and then by their bodies’ refusal to sustain the lives inside them.

Marcella Polain’s ‘Beautiful Negatives’ traces the topographies of grief which define one woman’s experience of loss in a world where doctors have replaced God: ‘it is doctors who hear us, who peer within, into our bodies and our stories, who look into our blood and return with judgements’ (110). Erin Pearce’s ‘My Scallywag Suit’ also writes to the tune of grief, though does so through the ostensible silliness of the protagonist’s reflections upon her predilection for dressing as a pirate. Frances Finch’s ‘Little-big Sister’ disguises nothing of her family’s struggle to care for an adopted sister who writhes in an agony of ungraspable identity.

The Australian outback appears both as a refuge and a place of danger in this collection. Goldie Goldbloom’s naïve child narrator in ‘The Road To Katherine’ is left forgotten, in the desert, by her dysfunctional family. When she hitches a lift with a truckie she intuitively realises her danger and, like Scheherazade, attempts to stave off death by telling stories. Pat Jacobs’ ‘The Chrysoprase Plane’ palpates with tension as a woman walks into the red dust of a desert whose harsh planes represent both her desire and inability to face the unknown: though nothing ‘happens’ in this story, everything is learnt. Jo-Ann Whalley’s ‘Saltwater Memories’ accompanies a women and her daughters’ escape from domestic abuse to the anonymous canvas of Nowhere, a place which not only offers crows and dead kangaroos, but the chance for a family to rewrite themselves into a new life. This story ponders the relationship between memory and reality, and is laden with a child’s guilt at not being able to protect the adult who was, after all, meant to be protecting her. Stories like those by Whalley and Goldbloom, and David Hutchison’s ‘Snakes Don’t Die Until Sunset’, all show a deep concern for children’s voices and experiences in a world dominated by adults.

A curiously high number of stories in this collection are preoccupied with the strange, the magical, and the mythical. Meredi Ortega’s ‘The Wardrobe’, Naama Amram’s ‘The Exhibition’ and Graham Nowland’s ‘Chomsky and the Kultigator’ all take us on journeys that leave us wondering how an individual creates meaningfulness when they are riddled with self-doubt or when they are surrounded by consumerism and pretension. Incredible plots and fantastic narrative plays with Time define both Jon Doust’s ‘The Man with a Moustache’ and Glen Hunting’s ‘The Island,’ while Malcolm Rock’s ‘The Deluge’ sees London disappear underwater, its inhabitants frozen beautifully in death. These surreal stories seem to emphasise the importance of the imagination in comprehending a world whose meanings seldom lie in its apparent realities.

In Max Taylor’s ‘Caterpillar Men’ the surreal meets the too real in the story of a Korean comfort woman’s survival of war. Taylor powerfully forces readers to confront the gruesome reality of sexual destruction in the figure of Aikiko who tries to deal with her horrific experiences by translating them into fable. She envisions the long line of Japanese soldiers eternally queuing outside of her dorm as a caterpillar, identifying herself and her fellow ex-slaves as mere leaves on a plant which contains ‘something’ that will someday bite that caterpillar’s head off and kill it. Sure enough, the war ends and the men go, but it is too late for Aikiko: ‘The whole battlefield is in my stomach,’ she says, ‘I am pregnant with war’ (175). After the war, the protagonist returns to her village with one of the other comfort women who eventually gives birth to a boy who has the wings of a moth. Together they build a new home where Time and the seasons magically overwhelm them with an abundance of food and beauty. The boy grows into a worldly and woman-seeking man, finally leaving the village with a new caterpillar of men who march towards a new war that has shattered their village utopia. War also appears in Ted George’s revelation of the boredom and false bravado of frightened young men dreaming of home while stuck in Vietnam, while Samuel Carmody’s ‘Deep Water’ traces one man’s return from the incomprehensible, dehumanised, technofied warfare of Kandahar to his home in Australia: his coastal refuge is gone; instead he finds an ‘ocean disturbed’ (192).

What is most striking about The Kid on the Karaoke Stage is its stories’ range of style and genre, a range which seems to suggest that Fremantle Press has generously – and quite unusually – created a collection that includes both the voices of writers who have mastered their craft and those who are still very much finding their voice. While this means that some stories still seem to need more editorial intervention – especially in terms of over-writing, the vice of all new writers – this engaging collection offers direct insight into the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of a regionally and historically specific group of Australian writers. It is encouraging that a quality house should publish such a book.


Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has published poems, short stories, essays and book reviews in Australia and overseas.


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Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy