The final volume of this institution of new Australian writing will make you wish there were more to come.
Over the past ten years, the Sleepers Almanac has become an institution of fine Australian storytelling. This tenth edition, we are told, will be the last.
I saw a show recently that took as its central question ‘When have you most felt that Australia was an island?’ In Sleepers Almanac X, we are presented with a series of islands; a cast of deeply isolated characters. Some are lost physically; others in relationships. And there’s a sense of frustration, too - that these characters may hold the key to their own liberation, if only they could find it. It seems strange to me that rather than this theme - or myriad other themes that could be drawn out of the collection - that editor Zoe Dattner’s introduction frames the book in the context of the evolution of language in the digital age. This theme is insisted upon throughout the book, which is interspersed with fun but incongruous mock-listicles and clickbait quizzes. This despite almost none of the stories making more than a passing mention of the internet; the conventions of the English language remain firmly intact throughout. Where the editing excels, though, is in its pacing; both the individual stories and their arrangement become more compelling as the book goes on.
There are so many tones and voices to love in this collection. One exciting trend is in stories that slip into the surreal. Eric Yoshiaki Dando draws us into the ever-weirder world of a man obsessed with terrariums, using the metaphor of terrariums within terrariums to blur the lines between fiction and reality. Julie Koh’s The Fat Girl in History is a fun piece of auto-fiction that hits its stride when our narrator starts to expand defiantly beyond the boundaries of her human form. In The Trial of Hugo Moon, Sean Condon transcends the fiction-becomes-reality trope to weave a tale of courtroom suspense as meaningful as it is witty. And it is the well-crafted suburban realism of most of Chris Womersley’s Headful of Bees that makes its surreal final image so horrific.
Landscape and place also hold the imagination within this collection. In Great Moments in Earth-Moving History, Michelle Wright’s loose-knit community of outcasts and lost souls resonate deeply with the fantastical decay of their surroundings. The unique claustrophobia of an outback town is conveyed with menace by Gay Lynch in A Good Man is Hard to Find, an all-too-familiar tale of intimate partner violence, and the complexities of trying to intervene. The wild beaches of Sophie Overett’s Undertow churn beneath the action of the present and bring the past bubbling to the surface.
Though there are many strong pieces in this collection, it is rounded out by two very fine stories. In Jarryd Luke’s Chaotic Neutral, a forensic anthropologist conducts experiments around the evidence that language can leave on a body. It’s a central conceit rich with metaphoric potential, and Luke explores the territory with both boldness and delicacy. The final piece, Laurie Steed’s Twenty-Eight Steps, is the only piece that delivers on the editorial promise of experimentation with language and form, but what a delivery. In 28 bullet points, one brother addresses another. Moments from history are recalled; ideas are referenced; a story unfolds so simply out of the details. This piece is pure, thrilling economy, with the reader granted the privilege of piecing together the moments in between.
There’s so much more I’d love to say about this collection. Its inclusion of a diverse mix of styles and levels of experience can make it an unwieldy beast, but it’ll be a shame to see this institution go.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The Sleepers Almanac X
Edited by Zoe Dattner & Louise Swinn
Featuring Melissa Howard, Leticia Parish, Sophie Overett, Alison Strumberger, Ryan O’Neill and more
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