TEXT review

Rummaging in our souls


review by Amy Brown


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Documents:TEXT REVIEWS:2014 OCTOBER ISSUE GENERAL:BOOK COVER IMAGES:Cleaning out the closet.png
Mary Pomfret
Cleaning Out the Closet
Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide 2014
ISBN 9781740278560
Pb 71pp AUD18.50


‘I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in...,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (Woolf 1928: 6). As the epigraph to Mary Pomfret’s second collection of short stories, it establishes a mood of psychological, domestic claustrophobia shared by the protagonists, each of whom seeks a release from her present situation or self: a mother cleans out her son’s bedroom the day before he leaves home and finds ‘memories tumbling over one another while she was down on her knees retrieving the last of the Lego pieces’ (9); an eldest daughter is the only one of her siblings unable to forget or forgive her father’s violent temper; a woman observes her small daughter’s popularity at school and realises her contrastingly peripheral social life; a contemporary Tasmanian Cordelia fights with her sisters over her father’s will; and a contemporary Anna Karenina meets with a divorce lawyer. Each story demonstrates how meditating on ostensibly mundane tasks or preoccupations, which usually obscure or dull personal trauma, can expose the troubling and closeted parts of oneself.

At their best, the ten stories in this collection convey familial relationships with the composure and acuity of Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore. We are introduced to narrator Roisin in ‘Mother Superior’s Garden Party’– a wry and raw vignette about intergenerational denial and domestic violence. At her mother’s seventieth birthday garden party, Roisin is shunned by her brother and sister, who have forgotten their father’s abuse. Both Roisin and her mother leave the party early; it is not a celebration for her mother, after all, but rather an opportunity for her father to hold court, and present himself as a hero, expunging the reality of his bullying. The scenes are vivid fragments; the reader is invited to question Roisin’s reliability. Later in the collection, ‘Gravy and Tragedy’ dramatises one of the traumatic memories responsible for Roisin’s opinion of her father. Having helped her mother prepare a meagre Christmas dinner, Roisin calls her drunken father to the table to carve the bird.

            All trace of laughter and talk had disappeared as we all sat there motionless, watching as our father mutilated the pitiful chicken. The Christmas chicken was now an irreverent pile of flesh and skin, the bread seasoning scattered in hunks on the table. Plunging the fork in, he pulled up the chicken’s anus and held it high in the air. Now, who is going to be the lucky one – who is going to eat the parson’s nose?’ (36)

Had Roisin’s stories come in immediate succession, there would have been less opportunity for the reader to assess the narrator’s reliability and to question the sources of tension pulling at what ought to have been a pleasant family event. By interspersing them with other narrators’ voices, Pomfret allows the details of Roisin’s stories to emerge gradually and partially, mimicking the creative act of memory, and demonstrating the different lifespans of pain and its origin. The strength and resonance of the stories mentioned above is perhaps a testament to the fact that Pomfret is currently completing a creative writing PhD concerned with presenting intergenerational trauma.

The interleaving narrative could also have served as a reinforcement of Anna Karenina’s opening; while the voices in this collection are almost unanimously female and concerned with familial pressures, their experiences of unhappiness are, it is implied, distinct and particular. However, while reading the collection, I found myself hoping for more sustained reflection on the causes of familial rifts. Instead, the stories tend to depict the effects of such tension, the pain that has been closeted away. This is an abundant subject, but it allows for little modulation of the emotional register across the collection. While the characterisation is often compelling and substantial enough for the reader to believe in a more complex existence for the narrator beyond the bounds of the text, the painful focal point of each story risks becoming predictable. In our ‘Our Darker Purpose’, Claudia (Cordelia) is grieving for her father:

            I’d walked into our father’s room just a few days before he died. Gloria was there; Gloria was always fussing over him and if she wasn’t, Raelene was. Asking him where he kept his financial papers, if they could help him with his banking, but never once did I see them cut his toenails or empty his bedpan. The nurse or I would do that. Now his room smelled of illness and death, a smell that even Gloria’s perfume could not disguise. (25)

This approach to King Lear results in an interesting voicing of mental illness, but its interpretation of the sisters’ rivalry comes across as a sketchy parody. Pomfret makes better use of Anna Karenina in ‘La Tristesse...’; a train station scene that could easily have descended into sentimentality instead deftly demonstrates how tragedy is not separate from but endemic to the commonplace. It is a reminder of Anna’s declaration that ‘rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed’ (Tolstoy 2003: 157), which is an apt metaphor for Pomfret’s collection as a whole.

While much of Cleaning Out the Closet is in the same key, it is inhabited by relatable characters who deserve to be cared about and remembered. The promise of this collection is somewhat marred by haphazard copy-editing; spelling and typographical errors of a frequency that distracts from the quality of the prose. This disappointment aside, Pomfret’s writing is enjoyable and affecting.


Works cited

Tolstoy, L 2003 [1873] Anna Karenina, trans R Pevear, Penguin Classics, London return to text

Woolf, V 1928 A Room of One’s Own, Harcourt, Orlando FL return to text



Dr Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet and novelist, who lives in Melbourne. In 2012, she completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, where she now teaches creative writing. Her first book, The Propaganda Poster Girl, was shortlisted for a New Zealand Book Award in 2009. Her latest book, a contemporary epic poem titled The Odour of Sanctity was published in 2013.


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Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste