"When we sit down to our meal, with his chair an empty space," nine-year-old Amy says of her Uncle Charles, banned from the Pentecostal family table because he has decamped to Sodomite Sydney, "I watch Grandpa Morpeth cut pieces of meat with his big hands and push them between his teeth, and chew and swallow, and what he is eating, I know, is ashes. His heart is closed on his grief. And this is what love is. That is what death is. Us inside at the table, passing things and eating, and him outside, as if he had never been born…"
The narrative voices in David Malouf's brilliant Complete Stories share a haunting specificity. Like Amy's in "Closer," they are often the voices of children, powerful in their bluntness and perceptiveness, but also puzzled—about their identities, their relationships to others, what they seem to have lost or missed out on. Many are like young Charlie in "War Baby," who feels evanescent, as if he "existed in a space which, the moment he stepped out of it, would close behind him…" Or they are eavesdroppers, voyeurs, even on occasion ghosts. In "At Schindler's," the happy place his family visits every summer at Scarborough, the boy Jack, confused by the wartime announcement that his father is "missing," by his mother who speaks "as if his father were just out of the room for a bit," and by his own belief that nothing is ever truly lost, sneaks out one night to the rocky slide at the far end of the beach where he suddenly comes upon his mother with her lover and the ghost of his father, watching.
In Malouf's world, there's restlessness, a lingering suspicion of the uncanny, a blurring of boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In "Sally's Story," a nineteen-year-old aspiring actress installs herself in an apartment as a prostitute catering to young American GIs on leave. She presides over a dreamy domesticity where soldiers can pretend to live a normal life away from the horrors of war. But the boys "were always looking at their watches and could not settle," she muses. "Something was always missing. And this was just what they had feared. That having survived and come so far, the thing they had come for might still be out of reach, or be happening elsewhere…"
Malouf is a citizen of the immeasurable Australian continent—unknowable, impossibly gorgeous one moment and shockingly brutal the next. From the ghostly glittering Queensland delta to hard-scrabble bush country, Edenic forest, or desert, Malouf's landscapes are sources of dream or hallucination, where time is suspended and conventional laws give way to forces that are "animal, ancient, darkly close and mysterious." Fearsome and seductive, they lie elsewhere, beyond the purview of everyday life which nonetheless continues apace in all its narrowness and predictability, a world where meals are eaten, clocks set, floor boards scrubbed and rifles oiled, quilts smoothed and lights extinguished. In "The Valley of Lagoons," young Angus joins in a secret ritual, an annual hunting-party pilgrimage to a strange place known only to a few, a place that is dangerous, capricious, sacred in its unknowingness, where the fears and longings of young men are externalized. "Fellows who went out there were changed," Angus says, as his initiation begins with a journey through high grasslands and ends in his confrontation with a darker and more primitive side of himself.
The prize-winning author of 10 novels and six volumes of poetry, Malouf's language is gorgeous—incantatory, Faulknerian, often biblical. It startles and seduces, a scrim of dream which overlays a structure as carefully rendered as a poem or a piece of music. Beginning with his most recent work, "Every Move You Make," this collection moves backwards through his previously published short fiction—Dream Stuff, Antipodes, and his earliest collection, Child's Play. To read Malouf is to hear the voices of old story-tellers, evoking the underworlds of our psyches and our cultures. We are lured to them by that ancient part of ourselves that dares to enter these wild places, to retrieve in some measure what we have lost.
Reviewed by Abby Pollak