Maria Takolander’s debut short story collection grapples with motifs of loss, dispossession, unrest and despair.
Catapulting readers from rural Australia to Northern Europe and beyond, Australian poet and literary critic Maria Takolander’s debut collection of short stories grapples with motifs of loss, dispossession, unrest and despair.
A diverse canvas of characters – from a violent father who grew up in the woods of Estonia, to a promiscuous schoolgirl who shuffles dissatisfied from town to town – prop up Takolander’s esoteric stories.
In a highly visceral and evocative start to the collection, 'Red Wheelbarrow' is a treatise on domestic violence characterised by a dysfunctional marriage and a menacing, abusive male antagonist. Told through the eyes of a troubled son, the story jumps back and forth between Australia and Estonia as the son visits his parents’ bleak hometown, Tallinn, to wrest clues that may give him an insight into his father’s violent disposition.
‘She told me that Dad’s upbringing was primitive. She used the word as if it was dirty. He had lived in a house in the woods. He had slept on a mattress filled with hay. During winter he had shat with the animals in the barn, where it was warm. It had been his job, she told me, to kill chickens for the table.’
American poet William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ – which the son was introduced to in university – acts as a counterpoint through which the son comes to understand, though not forgive, his father.
Taking her readers further afield, Takolander again journeys back and forth between Finland and Australia, as a middle-aged woman struggles to leave her past behind – constantly revisiting “that day at Black Lake” that resulted in the senseless death of her older brother. Taut, with a palpable sense of dread and tension throughout, the woman’s heightened senses tell of a perfunctory life that has lost all meaning as she pieces together the events that led to that fateful night.
In a departure from the haunting images that inhabit many a story in the anthology, ‘Mad Love’ is frenzied and raw; the story of a woman who hates the man she has inexplicably decided to spend the rest of her life with. Her seething rage is imbued with a comic-like quality however, as her observations of her newly acquired husband reveal a man blissfully unaware of how much he irritates his wife.
‘You were like that: content as the pure. In recent months it has crossed my mind that, with your stoop and paunch, you even looked like a monk, although I generally tried not to dwell on your appearance.’
In this story, Takolander momentarily abandons the icy cool confines of European towns in favour of an African setting – though it remains unnamed, other than being described as the ‘rape and murder capital of the world’.
The standout of the collection, however, is the gripping and tragic ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, where a lonely schoolboy is plagued by regular nightmares involving a new classmate Amelia and a persistent ringing phone. Takolander uses this story as a platform to explore mental illness, illicit relationships and the exploitation of power. We see Amelia through the schoolboy’s eyes as he inverts the traditional power structure between student and teacher, perceiving Amelia as the predator and his beloved English teacher Mr Needleman as the victim when their solicitous affair comes to light:
‘Then I understood: it was Amelia. She had tried to fool everyone with that baby routine, but I knew what she had done.’
In a departure from the style of the stories in the first half of the book, the four entwined short stories in the second half revolve around a single person – Zed Roankin. We are introduced to the character of the ever-elusive poet Zed Roankin in the first story, but – in an interesting style of narrative – Takolander does not divulge who he is until the very end. Brimming with humorous anecdotes, the self-important characters in each of the four stories imbue the book with a lightness that was bereft in the heavier accounts of the first half.
‘While my assessors seemed to have trouble fully appreciating the work, the manuscript was nevertheless passed without issue and swiftly published by Inveigle, a small poetry press that I established with the financial support of an emerging writer’s grant.’
Takolander’s stories are beautifully melancholy, full of arresting, dream-like sequences and imagery that stay with one long after the final page is turned. The idea of redemption pervades each story, as the frayed characters that Takolander has conjured up gradually come to accept whatever it is they have been grappling with. Though they may not have happy endings, they are symptomatic of life itself, with its many turns and vagaries.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5
By Maria Takolander
Paperback, 257pp, RRP $29.99