It was a comment my aunt made that led me to ruin my life. ‘Whatever you do,’ she said, standing tall amongst the blossom, ‘don’t let her become a writer. Anything else, for God’s sake. Anything but a writer.’
So begins the first, longest and, arguably, best short story in this collection by Sarah Quigley. It is an enticing opening and ‘The Marriage Mender’ is a memorable tale – demonstrating the repercussions that come when fifteen-year-old Sadie overhears a remark about her future. She takes it to heart, becoming in fact a divorce lawyer, who proves adept at reconciling warring couples. Hers will be a short-lived legal career but it makes for an interesting conflict of interest. Charting the decade of Sadie’s life from the moment of her aunt’s comment, the story focuses on her important relationships – with father, mother, aunt and, less significantly, boyfriend. It takes its time and we get to know Sadie and her circle.
There is humour:
‘Just let me top up Gordon’s gin,’ he said, which struck me as so funny that I snorted champagne out of my nose.
We care about Sadie and what she will do with her life. Is she taking the soft option becoming a lawyer like her parents? At the party they throw to mark her decision to study law she declares: ‘I never thought seriously about becoming a writer.’ Is this true or is she trying hard to reassure them and convince herself?
Somehow the reader knows that Sadie was meant to be a writer. She’s the narrator of this story, after all, perhaps even a version of the author herself. Can she resist her calling? Can she resist her irresistible and fascinating aunt? Sadie loves her parents but begins, as teenagers do, to see them as people with quirks and failings. Still, they appear to be inseparable and their marriage seems perfect. Her single aunt, immersed in the world of publishing, has a different appeal. An attractive, shrewd and independent woman who scorns enduring attachments, she declares herself to be ‘not the marrying kind’. Sadie admires her enormously, and strives to foot it with her but often fails. A child of our times, Sadie is outwardly tough but endearingly young. She is still capable of reacting spontaneously and behaving badly. She has a vitality that many of Quigley’s other characters lack.
Sarah Quigley has a reputation as a skilled and prolific writer and her work has been singled out for international attention. She has ‘divided her time between New Zealand and Berlin’ since winning the inaugural Creative New Zealand Berlin Residency in 2000. Quigley’s short stories and her poetry have appeared in New Zealand and overseas anthologies. Her first book was a collection of short stories Having Words With You, published by Penguin in 1998. Five novels followed, and her most recent, The Conductor, tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and its performance in besieged Leningrad with Karl Eliasberg conducting. It has proved to be an international best seller.
The stories in this collection are overwhelmingly about contemporary women, and the world is seen through their eyes. When they are fully developed, fleshed-out individuals they engage the reader’s sympathy with their vulnerability and their cleverness. Quigley’s women have qualities in common. Words matter to them. They are often writers:
They’d been married for some years now, but they ate together only once a week, on a Sunday, a meal they called ‘brunch’. Although she despised the laziness of the word, its hasty and obvious construction, she enjoyed the actual experience.
Though articulate, words fail them on occasion: ‘I stood dumbly beside your hospital bed.’ More commonly they say the wrong thing and suffer for it:
… I asked if she’d remembered to feed the goldfish before leaving home; a question so inane it made me wince.
When they fall in love (or ‘in lust’ as the case may be) they fall hard and fast:
You didn’t know if he was hitting on you … but you knew you were ravenous, and not for food.
His voice had an authority and a slight reproof that started an ache between her legs, like an instinct.
The woman may come to her senses, seeing the man for what he is. Fate or death may intervene, but there is no ‘happy ever after’. The reader, however, has already seen through the unlikeable men and judged them to be unsuitable for our heroines. ‘The Addiction’ is a case in point. We wonder what the women saw in such men in the first place. They are manipulative and shallow or well-intentioned but wooden. Straw men, they are set up to be rejected.
Quigley’s women travel the world. These stories will take you to London, Los Angeles, Auckland, Berlin, Japan, Denmark and somewhere on the high seas. ‘In the Palace Gardens’ is all about atmosphere – deepest, darkest winter in Europe, a man from the Old World and a woman from the New. They have been lovers, but now they talk in stilted sentences and at cross-purposes. Nothing much happens. He can’t find the exit. She loses her glove. It is the strong setting that lingers in the mind when the characters have gone their separate ways – the troubled Antipodean woman and the assured European man.
Some of Sarah Quigley’s stories stand out as different. In ‘Alexander, Two’, Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin is more than a setting; it carries the weight of its history for Eva, who reluctantly visited Berlin on a school trip during the Cold War Era. Her almost-eight-year-old son Alexander is oblivious to her anguish but manages to have his own adventure there. ‘Chill’ also features a male protagonist, though less successfully. A nameless New Zealand teacher (and juggler), working in Japan, visits Sapporo with an American fellow teacher and drinks too much sake. He juggles atop an ice sculpture (the Great Wall of China) and falls. While this is a terse summary, it doesn’t seem quite enough of a situation to hang a story on.
There are stories to reward the reader. ‘The Marriage Mender’ at 73 pages is a satisfying novella. Other memorable stories include one mentioned above – ‘In the Palace Gardens’ (28 pages) – and ‘The Crane’ (20 pages). ‘Main Road Out’ (17 pages) and ‘Driving to Midnight’ (7 pages) are road stories that offered possibilities but ended up being unsatisfactory because of their brevity. This collection includes 22 stories and many run to fewer than ten pages. Five stories are less than six pages long and one just tips over into its second page. They are fragments and easily forgotten.
Quigley seems to be experimenting. We find first, second and third-person narratives. Some stories are broken up into brief half-page sections. We have narrative interrupted by numbered paragraphs in italics.
Titles like ‘Donkeys are Introverts’, ‘The State, the Shape and the Leaving’ and ‘Verity, Lying’ elucidate nothing. There is no unifying theme and a notable absence of ‘tenderness’, if we understand it to mean affection and comfortable intimacy. Quigley’s women find love discomforting and confusing. While I don’t dispute this vision of human relations, confronting it repeatedly became dislocating, predictable and tiresome.
The author employs an arch tone and disengaged attitude in some stories where protagonists remain nameless. ‘Shirker’ begins:
She met a man who mended photocopiers. After hearing him speak with authority about the paper tray, she decided to marry him. It took only a few days to convince him.
She married him, lived with him for six months, divorced him.
There seems to be an attempt to obscure meaning, as in ‘The English Speakers’, which I found too cryptic. (Nothing is more alienating than the feeling that there is a joke in there but you don’t get it, or a point to the story but you can’t find it.) While some brief enigmatic pieces demonstrate a quirky playfulness, I preferred the longer, less whimsical ones where characters I could identify with, though not necessarily like, faced their challenges with gutsy fatalism, a quality that Quigley’s women possess in good measure.
On the back cover it is claimed that ‘(w)ith a mix of humour and compassion, each story carries the punch of a compacted novel, highlighting those illuminating moments of human connection.’ (I wondered about the risk of dazzling the reader by ‘highlighting … illuminating moments’.) Compacting is indeed the mission of all short stories and the reader expects depth and intensity. A handful of stories in this collection achieve that goal, but most fall short.
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a novelist and short story writer who lives in Dunedin.