BOOK REVIEW: Griffith Review 34: Third Annual Fiction Edition (ed by Julianne Schultz, Text)

With this third annual edition of short fiction and memoir, The Griffith Review shows why it is has become one of the leading literary journals in Australia. Not only is the collection of work displayed here diverse and entertaining, showing as it does the work of emerging and established writers, but its commitment to the printed short story is laudable at a time when literary journals are feeling the lure of the online world as a way of reducing costs and reviving shrinking readership bases.

Of course, for readers, any collection of this sort will be a little uneven, but there are certainly enough strong stories here to engage readers fully and in often complex ways. After reading them all, what lingers is a sense of courage. These stories aren’t afraid to be both personal (sometimes revealingly so) and political in the sense that they often have connections with current events: the things that concern us now.

Overall, the stories manage to weave things like the expatriate experience, the environment, fears of terrorism, drugs, crime, age, gender and Indigeneity into often subtle and entertaining stories that don’t suppress the needs of good narrative storytelling to their central concerns.

Of note is Jane Williams haunting ‘A Matter of Instinct’, in which a woman who has separated from her family occupies an old house on a remote island to try to ‘live alone’. Soon she finds herself the subject of torment from a recently divorced but well-meaning neighbour. The tension of this woman alone being harassed becomes quite chilling as we realise that new beginnings bring with them both terror and grief.

Cory Taylor’s ‘Continental Drift’ is also a fine piece of work, dealing with that typically Australian feeling that ‘life is elsewhere’ . Here the young girl at the heart of the story finds herself constantly drawn overseas in search of ’being someone’. It is a story told with a deft touch and leaves one with a deep sense of sadness.

There are stories that don’t deal with Australia. Probably my favourite of the whole collection, Nicolas Low’s ‘Octopus’ , is set in New Zealand and cleverly combines Maori culture with fears of terrorism, fears of the outsider, and fears of an ancient, apocalyptic understanding. The collection also includes a handful of compelling memoirs, but it is the stories at once comfortable and thought-provoking, edgy and familiar, that will draw the reader through its pages.

Shane Strange is an ex-bookseller and writer who teaches writing at the University of Canberra. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, available online here