Friday, 12 May 2017

The Weight of a Human Heart

I've never been much of a short story reader. It's not that I don't like them. I often do like the stories, but I'm confused by how to read a collection of them. It's pretty much the problem I have with poetry (well part of the problem that I have with poetry). The stories are often quite different, and while on one level that's good, on the other hand I find it quite a difficult reading experience.

Sometimes you need time for a particularly moving or disturbing short story to settle. Do you plow on to the next story? Or stop, rest and let that one sit a while? But what do you keep reading then? These are difficult problems for a reader to face.

Anyway, I picked up The Weight of a Human Heart at the recent Newcastle Writers Festival. I didn't see Ryan O'Neill speak in a session, but was attracted by the cover of this book, and the name, and so I turned it over to read the blurb on the back. There was a brief synopsis of five of the short stories. One particularly caught my attention.

A series of graphs illustrates the disintegration of a marriage, step by excruciating step. 

So I read most of that story standing there in the festival bookshop. Called Figures in a Marriage it is a unique way to look at not only the misery of the breakdown of a marriage, but also how Helen and Ray had met in the first place, and how they may not have been suitable even before they met. I'd never seen anything quite like it. And of course it's particularly relevant, and particularly interesting to me at the moment, so I came home with a copy of the book.

The twenty one stories cover a wide range of cheery subjects like racism, infidelity, the Rwandan genocide (a subject that I've actively avoided in fiction and movies) and obviously genocide stories don't make for calming bedtime reading. There is a wide range of geography in the settings of the stories which reflect O'Neill's life journey- the back of the book tells us that he was born in Scotland, and lived in Europe, Africa and Asia before settling in Newcastle, Australia.

Ryan O'Neill really plays with the shape and form of stories in this collection and on the whole that really worked for me, it was clever and fun. Although I didn't feel nearly clever enough to read, let alone understand one of them, A Story in Writing, where the story is told in sections with headings such as Annotation, Haiku and Biblical, all good, but what am I to make of Epizeuxis and Aposiopesis?

I was most comfortable with the stories with rather domestic Australian settings, often set in or near Newcastle. Not that these were cozy, easy reads particularly. I really loved Four Letter Words, A Room Without Books and A Speeding Bullet, exploring life with comics, or a fathers alcoholism. Two of the stories were particularly funny - The Footnote and the final story The Eunuch in The Harem which has a long running literary feud played out in the review pages of The Sydney Review

The Weight of a Human Heart has whetted my appetite for short stories, and I'm looking forward to reading more soon, and also Ryan's most recent book Their Brilliant Careers has been longlisted for this years Miles Franklin

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