Excerpt from a Reading Journal, 2011
I have been trying, for the last two weeks, to write a story that won’t quite form. It has gone from thirty pages to ten pages, now down to eight. It has also been through five point of view changes. I am hoping that something will work soon. Whenever I get really stuck with a story I usually find that reading some of Barbara Anderson’s short stories seem to help. I am currently reading I Think We Should Go Into The Jungle. One of the things I admire about her writing is the way stories are often left open at the end. The endings sometimes have a wistful quality. This morning I read ‘Egypt Is A Timeless Land’. Many of Anderson’s stories cover a character’s lifetime, as this story does, beginning at a time of crisis then backtracking, from a point in the past, up until the opening sequence can be explained. ‘Egypt Is A Timeless Land’ begins with a couple on a holiday in Egypt. The back-story, which begins on the second page, traces the couple meeting at university, their courtship, marriage, family-life, and the children growing up and leaving home. Then the story moves to a breakdown, suffered by the protagonist, the wife, followed by the decision to go to Egypt for a holiday. Each character and scene is captured with precise details. Further stories with this “bookended” structure are ‘Tuataras’ and ‘I Want To Get Out I Said’. The former, ‘Tuatara’, covers the relationship between a brother and sister, beginning from young adulthood and carrying through to middle age. Often the story, which is only thirteen pages long, moves forward quickly:
‘As the years passed the lesser toasts married, their nuptial photographs splashing through the pages of The Free Lance. “Broad acres united,” sang the caption beneath the bucolic groom and the hysterical-looking girl clinging to his arm. “Titian bride” followed “Twins unite in double ceremony,” and still Rhona was unmarried. Nobody could understand it.’
‘She came home occasionally. She was now elegant as well as beautiful. She was invited to meals with all her married friends and played on floors with her many godchildren to whom she gave expensive English-type presents. Corals, for example, for the little girls to wear with their party frocks. Large Dinky Toy milk floats and rubbish collection vans which the little boys did not recognize, and which had to be explained and demonstrated by Rhona from England.’
The next story, ‘I Want To Get Out I Said’ (I’m not sure that I like this title), is about a relationship breakdown between a husband and wife, narrated by Mary, one of their children. It begins with the mother, the two children (Mary and Sam), and the grandfather, all sitting in a car with a flat tyre. From there the story backtracks to the father leaving the family and how, through the eyes of Mary, each family member deals with the situation. First the mother who ‘… behaved like a sheep which had blundered into the wrong race and become separated from the rest of the mob’. Then the grandfather whose presence ‘seeped though the quiet house as he sat calm and benign in the one comfortable chair in the sitting room’. Then Sam who ‘kept his own counsel’. From there, the story skillfully moves to the mother deciding to take the family for a trip up North. On day two, the car gets a flat tyre, bringing the story to its starting point. At that point a man, who is a friend the grandfather’s, stops and helps then fix the tyre. The ending is a nice demonstration of pathos with the grandfather noticing a bird high above them in the forest. ‘– Listen, said Mary’s grandfather – Listen.’
I have decided to play around over the next few days with the ‘bookend’ structure that Anderson uses in many of her short stories and see what I can produce.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gemma Bowker-Wright is currently completing the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. Her portfolio of short stories draws on her background in environmental science and study of New Zealand native birds. The Takahe comes from her portfolio.