Bearings is a collection of short stories, published by the Melbourne publisher Affirm Press as part of their Long Story Shorts project “to publish six collections of short fiction from individual authors.” What a great idea, and I’m not sure why they should commit themselves to stopping at six titles. (Why not just keep going?) With their retro-looking covers, the series has a distinctive visual appeal.
Bearings is Leah Swann’s first published work, seven stories and a novella. Like most writing in our culture and period, it doesn’t shy away from the dark themes: death, illness and fractured families. The stories are centred on personal and family life. The voices are diverse in age, gender and class. A boy experiences the death of his dog as the beginning of the end of childhood in Street Sweeper. The Singles Club portrays an aboriginal man’s uneasy relationship with his home town, and a white woman’s uneasy relationship with pretty much everything. All your Mothers is reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room – a hard, sad situation described from a very unsentimental kid’s eye view. In The Ringwood Madonna, art helps to transform a suburban mother’s depression and boredom with a shock of the unexpected.
As the title implies, Bearings is about people who are in flux, going through changes and in need of a map and compass. These stories could be just a good wallow in misery and torment like the memoirs that are so popular now, but Swann avoids this contemporary cliche. Except perhaps for one story, Slow to Learn, the stories in Bearings contain as much hope and affirmation as sadness. Swann also avoids too much earnestness. This isn’t just kitchen sink drama. Swann has a feeling for the little weird twist which takes the stories out of the Social Issue Story realm. In the novella, Silver Hands, where a sculptor faces the simultaneous loss of her skill, through tendonitis, and her sense of control over her family life, there’s a scene on a beach involving a penguin which I can just imagine being filmed for the next Tropfest. Swann can be whimsical, but not arch. The emotional tone rings true throughout, and her descriptive passages are beautiful and economical.
On the night of his father’s death, David felt its approach. The atmosphere of the death room was not unlike that of a birth room: a space between worlds. Something was vast and wide open, with the force of a gale yet utterly still. (Lovest Thou Me)
When jogging, he imagines what it might be like to hold his child for the first time. The baby skips across his mind like a stone skimming a river, and his heart skips with anxious joy.
His own, living body registers horror in increments: the skin, the stomach, the heart. For a moment he feels he might vomit. He reaches to his hip and draws out the mobile phone. It is silver, unnaturally bright in the muted landscape. Never has he felt more grateful for this tiny cold portal to another world. (The Easter Hare)
Bearings travels on the dark side while illuminating the things which make that dark side endurable. It’s neither Pollyannaish nor excessively traumatising (David Vann, I’m looking at you!) I enjoyed reading it and I’ll be looking out for Swann’s next publication.
Thanks to Affirm Press for the review copy of the book.