This year I am writing more short stories to improve my skills in varying narrative voice and genre: I thought I would read some more short story collections as well to see how the professionals were writing and take inspiration. I came across Australian writer Debra Adelaide’s 2013 collection ‘Letter to George Clooney’, which I had seen reviewed favourably last year in the Sydney Morning Herald. What a joy to read! I finished it in a few days, reading the collection chronologically rather than dipping in haphazardly: I would recommend this way as the last two stories are the most profound and will leave you at the close of the book deep in contemplation.
Most pieces of the collection are observational in nature, written with a dry wit, particularly those poking gentle fun at the profession of writing, and a few a bit more scathing on the pitfalls and pleasures of modern dating. I particularly enjoyed the story ‘Chance’ which focused on two romances instigated online by the protagonist: those who have kissed a few frogs to find a prince will understand the cold analysis by the narrator, ‘She suffered in Ken’s awkward embraces that focused on kisses that never quite worked out’.
There are also stories based in more speculative worlds such as ‘Virgin Bones’ telling of families in some distant time who live in cemeteries and polish bones for wealthy people; and the first story ‘The Sleepers in That Quiet Earth’ where writer steps into the life of the short story she is composing. Wry humour is pointed at the ATO in ‘Pirate Map’ and a sweetly sad treatment of a single mum sucked in by one of those letter sending scams in ‘The Moon Will Do’ round out the collection. ‘The Form of Solemnisation of Matrimony’ on the wedding of an older couple reunited after many years has such a slow build of tension that you almost cheer at the end when all is well: ‘He held out one arm and walked towards her, and she wondered how the years could drop away so quickly, like a satin gown that, untied, just slithered to the floor’.
But it is the final two stories that showcase Adelaide’s absolute talent, in ‘Airlock’ and ‘Letter to George Clooney’. I won’t ruin them for readers, but the first is set in a controlled community centre where children have supervised visits with their estranged parent, and the second is not as I had thought, a fan’s letter to the actor, but a refugee’s letter to him explaining his role in her capture by soldiers in her homeland the Sudan. I was completely devastated by the content of this story, but also overwhelmed by Adelaide’s ability to blend humour and pathos, her spare use of language to create incredible depth of feeling, and the fluidity in bringing the story around full circle to the theme. A taste of the language: ‘Recalling now the press of her dusty lips on my forehead makes me weep. I realise now that it is not the horrors that are unbearable over the years, but the small kindnesses. One day I might understand why that is so’.
I can’t recommend this collection enough and will be reading Adelaide’s other bestseller ‘The Household Guide to Dying’ even though I fear it will be a tear jerker.
*This book is reviewed as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge