Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Book Review - 'Like A House On Fire' by Cate Kennedy

Book Cover:  Like a House on FireThis is an anthology of short stories by Australian author Cate Kennedy and it is another glorious collection of short pieces, much like the previously reviewed work from Debra Adelaide. I read this anthology chronologically as well, but while I didn't connect with every story in the Adelaide collection, I must say I truly enjoyed every short piece in this one. Kennedy is a master observer of domestic struggle; she pinpoints and describes superbly the innermost thoughts of individuals living their ordinary existence, often highlighting the universality of those thoughts. I say universal hesitantly because I understood and recognised most of the feelings Kennedy describes in her pieces, but her pieces which revolve around motherhood, breastfeeding and caring for family members is exactly where I am in life at the moment so my connection may just be contextual. This also leads to one concern I had when reading the anthology: despite Kennedy taking male narrative voices in  the collection, those narrators were mainly in domestic settings - sick at home and caring for children, driving a mother to scatter ashes, a man trying to hold the family Christmas lunch together - and I wonder if these stories aren't skewed too far to the female reader. But perhaps that is not a problem, and certainly wasn't for me obviously as a female reader.
In terms of the stories the standouts included 'Laminex and Mirrors', a beautifully wry portrait of the developing friendship between a young girl, working as a cleaner in a hospital, and a veteran spending his last days in the ward. He's desperate for a banned cigarette until the day when the girl takes him 'AWOL' for one: "In his room I hold the mirror while he runs his electric razor over his cheeks and chin...'You know, I never wanted to live past seventy-five', he says, 'till the day I turned seventy-four'".
'Tender' subtly sets up the portrait of a carefree and laissaz faire partner and father from the point of view of his wife, due to have a breast biopsy the following day: you can feel the narrator lovingly but also fearfully imagining the future for her family as she watches her partner negotiate the 'witching' hour with the kids.
'Five Dollar Family' refers to the shopping centre baby and family photograph which a young mother is determined to have done with her two day old and her very reluctant young boyfriend. It is a shrewd picture of the determination in many young mothers, often underrated or written off by the general population. Kennedy combines that portrait with the fear and the overwhelming change in life experienced by all mothers: "She'd steeled herself afterwards, during the night, and put her hand down to finally feel the stitches there. Jagged as a barbed-wire fence, just about, the flesh swollen and unrecognisable as her won. Numb on the surface and a burning ache inside".
And 'Cake' beautifully picks apart the feelings of a mother returning to work after 18 months, and the guilt felt from leaving a toddler at day care, along with the surreal feeling that I'm sure many people feel when they have had a break from dreary office life and come back to see it with fresh eyes: "There will be a cake, she thinks, at morning tea. That's the way it's always gone." The conversation regarding the collection of money for the supermarket mud cake, and the combined once a month birthdays speech from the boss made me smile: been there, done that (while thinking about what the toddler is eating at the day care just as Kennedy's narrator was thinking).
I'm really enjoying reading these short stories anthologies as a departure from novel reading, with the dipping in and out much like the watching of television episodes as opposed to films. I like the quick and constant variation in genre, narrative voices and setting. Kennedy has proven herself adept at this constant variation, and she has a tremendous eye for the minutea of domestic life.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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