TEXT review

Happiness in repetition

review by Luke Johnson



H C Gildfind
The Worry Front

Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe WA 2018
ISBN: 9780648027577
Pb 296pp AUD24.00


One imagines that thumbtacked to the pinboard above H C Gildfind’s writing desk (or perhaps tattooed on the top of her dominant typing hand) are the words, ‘Happiness is repetition.’ If they hadn’t been quoted midway through the penultimate story of her debut collection The Worry Front (or perhaps misquoted: is this a reduction of Milan Kundera’s well-known ‘happiness is the longing for repetition’? [1]) then I’d have been forced to pencil them into the text myself.

Reading this collection of eleven short stories and one novella, there were more than a few instances where I found myself agreeing with the sentiment: repetition is happiness. But then, as the stories demonstrate, it’s also instructive, disconcerting, fun, teleological, surreal, aesthetic, ecstatic and addictive. And takes on many guises too, from prosaic tropes like reappearing themes, characteristics and imagistic motifs, through to techniques more typically associated with poetry, such as rhyme, slant rhyme, alliteration, assonance, anadiplosis, anaphora and epistrophe.

For the most part, the reverberations felt purposefully, even expertly, placed within and across the stories: patterns of sight and sound that built and built and built to deliver a literary sensation somehow akin to that moment when a light patter of rain turns to a sudden and exciting downpour (no doubt it’s the pressure systems drawn all over the front cover that have me thinking in such meteorological similes). There were, however, moments here and there where I wasn’t quite as convinced, which is to say that from time to time, it caused the prose to come across a little awkwardly. Try reading aloud the following passage, taken from the title piece:

I got Frank’s old Italian coffee pot. I pressed the coffee into the metal filter, placed the filter over the water-filled base and firmly screwed on the top. I put the pot on the hotplate. I stood by and watched and waited, as I always do, and admired the fineness of its simple yet perfect design, as I always do, and wondered vaguely – as I always do too – just where that pot has been and where it is still to go in its long life. Frank’s friend bought it in Rome over sixty years ago. (18)

Undoubtedly, the epistrophic use of the phrase ‘as I always do’ is mindful. Just as we suspect the author knew what she was up to when she paired watched and waited, and long and life, and Frank’s and friend. While the repetition of ‘filter’ can be taken as an instance of anadiplosis, leading the reader from one clause into the next, I’m less convinced by the word ‘filled’ which crops up shortly after to create not so much a link as an unfulfilled rime riche. A similar point can be made about the words ‘placed’ and ‘base’, located in the same sentence. It’s also unclear to me what purpose all those P words are achieving (pot, pressed, placed, put, pot, -plate, perfect, pot), or the heavy assonance that runs throughout the paragraph (got, old, cof-, pot, cof-, pot, top, (put), pot, hot, pot). Is this intentional, or does it constitute a section of prose that looked okay to the eye, but was never put to the ear?

Admittedly, this is not the sort of close reading normally applied to short stories. This is prose, after all, not poetry. But when we are dealing with a writer so deeply enamoured with language (as I feel justified in taking Gildfind to be), then it seems warranted. There is a linguistic intensity to these stories that deserves, or rather invites, this kind of scrutiny.

I’m pleased to say that by and large the writing holds up to such attention. I particularly enjoyed the opening story, ‘Ferryman’, about a male school teacher who’s retreated into the northern icelands of god-knows-where to escape accusations of paedophilia. With its title and setting hinting at the mythological watery divide between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the story spares us none of the horrors from either shoreline. There’s the ‘little slut’ who accuses the protagonist of the crime: ‘He should have fucked her, fucked her dead. He should have fucked her dead’; there’s ‘a baby, a baby shaken till its ribs got crushed and its neck clean broke in two’; and then there’s the crow who ‘hops back and forth, back and forth, stabbing at a plastic rubbish bag … stabbing it and stabbing it and stabbing it with her granite beak’. I won’t tell you what’s inside the bag, but I will say that it’s ‘bloated and blue… [and] brand new, brand new’. This is a genuinely unsettling and for that matter excellent story that employs semantic and syntactic parallelism to showcase the demonic, uncanny character of compulsive repetition as it has been theorised by Freud and his followers. [2]

Of course, if the image of the stabbing crow brings to mind the poetry of Ted Hughes, then it would be remiss of me not to mention Sylvia Plath, who also finds her way into the collection. ‘Morning Song’ borrows its title and its screaming infant from Plath’s posthumous and much celebrated, Ariel. In Gildfind’s story a ‘chunky woman’ (this is how she is described throughout) spends the day looking after the baby of a ‘very tall and very thin’ friend, who may or may not have been a lover of hers in the past. A cord of jealousy nourishes the story with enough malcontent to keep things interesting, while a protective, swooping magpie provides an allegorical dimension that even the protagonist cannot fail to see. This story does an impressive job of adapting the poetic landscape of Plath’s poem to narrative – ‘a magpie’s song sets the heat shimmering’ as ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, for instance; however, its use of what in more recent times has become a fairly familiar gesture towards female psychological malady – namely, women mistreating babies – creates an empathetic gulf between character and reader that does run the risk of flattening that landscape somewhat.

Minor lapses like these aside, The Worry Front is an intelligent and jarring work of fiction that at its best is both psychologically unnerving and aesthetically mesmerising. It should be read. And then read again.





Luke Johnson lectures in Creative Writing and Critical Theory at the University of Wollongong. His short stories have appeared in such places as Griffith Review, Island, Westerly, Overland, Going Down Swinging, The Lifted Brow, Mascara Literary Review and TEXT, and have been listed for or won such prizes as the Josephine Ulrick Award, Elizabeth Jolley Award and AAWP Chapter One Award. He is treasurer of the Australian Short Story Festival.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker