Melanie Cheng holds up a mirror to ourselves, and what we see does not always make us comfortable.
Melanie Cheng's Australia Day. Published by Text Publishing.
Australia Day is both the title of this collection and the name of the first of the 14 short stories that comprise it. Like most of the other stories, reading this one is like gazing at a painting: you can see the whole at a glance, but closer inspection reveals details and subtleties missed at first sight.
In the story ‘Australia Day’, Stanley Chu is a medical student from Hong Kong who is slowly coming to terms with the Australian way of life. We feel slightly out of place with him at a typical Australia Day barbecue. He has learned to answer the question 'who do you barrack for?' although he has never watched an Australian rules football match. He doesn't like beer but has learned to drink it from the bottle.
In ‘Big Problems’, a young Syrian woman visits Alice Springs and Uluru and again Cheng gives telling glimpses of Australia through foreign eyes. The theme of looking at one culture with the eyes of another is also used in the stories ‘Clear Blue Seas’ and 'Hotel Cambodia’ – in these cases, we see through the eyes of Australians located overseas. Themes of racial differentiation and discrimination are present in many of the other stories, sometimes presented with subtle humour: 'When Simon showed ... pictures of ... family and friends at the Melbourne Cup you couldn't spot a brown face among them.'
Some of the stories have a medical background and are presented from the doctor's point of view. They relate to alcohol and drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and accidental injury. They are peopled by contemporary Australians, many of whom are likely to bear a strong resemblance to people we know, such as the mother in ‘Fracture’ 'who loved telling her family in London she lived in a place called Sunshine. Never mind that it was an old industrial district, or that the nearest beach was fifteen kilometres away.'
Cheng also explores complex family relationships with insight, sympathy and understanding, but without the slightest touch of sentimentality.
Following the demise of many once-popular magazines, short stories languished for a while. However, in the last few decades they have regained much of their popularity. Long-forgotten writers like O Henry and Damon Runyon often ended their short stories with a twist at the end that turned the reader's perception of the story topsy-turvy. Cheng does that rather well in one of these tales but for the most part ends her stories on a note of slightly melancholic hopefulness.
Perhaps Cheng’s greatest accomplishment, though, is to effectively hold up a mirror to ourselves in contemporary Australia. And while what we see does not always make us comfortable, her collection is a very worthwhile addition to the wonderful world of short stories.
Rating: 4 stars ★★★★
By Melanie Cheng
Text publication date: 3 July 2017
First published on
What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level