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Sam van Zweden

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laurie steed

Review: You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

YouBelongHere_front+SmallI’m listening to PJ Harvey, having spent the morning devouring the second half of Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here. It lead me to remember how close I once felt to PJ, how much Dry and To Bring You My Love meant to me. Now I’m unsure where the discs are—on a spindle somewhere, I think. They’re burnt discs, and they were ripped for me in Glen Waverly by my friend Karl (his tall and sloping handwriting on the front of the disc). Karl’s dad had become animated telling me how much he believed I’d find something resonant in PJ. And I did. I still do.

When I listen now, my body still somehow anticipates the little aching hiccups she does at the end of a verse or track, the audible inhalations, the yelps. I remember the house in Glen Waverley with its overgrown yard, and the boys who lived in the house. I remember the walk across the oval from the station, and making tacos together, and tacking blankets to the walls to sound-proof a band rehearsal room… I remember the comfort that PJ brought me in later sharehouses, and in bleak moods… All these things are attached to her sound. From one track unfolds a world.

Musical memories are some of the strongest ones, and this idea is what pulls together Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here (released March 2018 from Margaret River Press), whose cover features an artfully destructed cassette tape. This debut novel follows the Slater family across three generations, in only 247 pages. We first meet Jen and Steven in 1972, and follow their love affair and the beginnings of their family. Three children later, Jen and Steven struggle to remain connected. After Steven leaves the family, the reverberations of his decision are felt long into the future, impacting not only his children (Alex, Emily and Jay), but their children too. The book closes on the family in 2015.

Nostalgia plays a big part in these stories, and readers are rewarded for their era-specific knowledge not only of music but of cultural touchstones like Street Fighter II.

The chapters at first seem ambitious, skipping forwards and planting the sweet beginnings of family life. By the time things go sour for the Slaters, a slipstream of inevitability has tied everyone together—and as a reader, I was invested in the family’s happiness by this point. The love between Jen and Steven seems unstoppable, their move to Perth necessary. When Dad (Steven) leaves, Jay watches on: ‘In the end, it was okay without Dad around. They wouldn’t have chosen it had they been given the choice of three doors, but they’d only been given the one, and when you were only given one door there’s not much else to do but go through’. Fate and choice may be an illusion, but the really sticky and interesting bits—the stuff that makes characters interesting—is how they respond to forced and unchosen situations, and whether they subscribe to familial patterns or push back.

The highly enjoyable musical elements in You Belong Here begin with Just Hits ‘85 – a cassette the family enjoys together. Throughout the book, characters meditate on the music that matters to them, through extended critiques that fit beautifully into the context of the stories. Alex gives a full-page critique of Faith No More’s Angel Dust; Emily an even longer reflection on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. When big-hearted and compassionate ‘Baby Jay’ gets his opportunity to think over music, he does so only as a reaction to his siblings’ tastes. ‘You’re joking about this album, aren’t you?’ he asks of Alex’s obsession with Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward SpiralYou Belong Here underscores the reasons that music can affect us so deeply, and how we hold it close, until it becomes a container for moments within our lives.

Steed’s background as a short story writer allows him to artfully capture the arc of a number of lives through well-placed episodes which centre the experiences of different family members. The novel’s precise language hints rather than prescribes, creating moments that gesture beyond their frame—expanding in much the same way that musical memories inflate.

Steed has compressed an incredible story between these two covers.

Review: Shibboleth, ed. Laurie Steed

shibbolethIn Jo Riccioni’s short story, ‘Shibboleth’, ex-lovers visit the Tate Modern to see Doris Salcedo’s installation, ‘Shibboleth’. The story’s protagonist feels ‘a primal shock, the life-sized rupture of it in all that civilised space’. The story runs for a short 12 pages, but gestures far more widely than those confines without feeling too ambitious. A shared past is cobbled together from snippets. The dialogue glows with the warmth and idiosyncrasy of talk between familiar people. This is the story that won the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition, and the story which provides the title for a new book from Margaret River Press, compiling outstanding entries from that competition.

I know little-to-nothing about what happens in the writing world of Western Australia, and I’m both apologetic for and embarrassed by this. I suspect it’s unconscious urban south-eastern literary snobbery at work. But WA accounts for such a large portion of our country, it’s silly not to make a priority of knowing what’s happening there – such as the good work done at Margaret River Press. This collection features writers from Australia and New Zealand, but also (importantly) new and exciting voices from WA, including the winner of the Southwest Prize, awarded to a writer from south western WA (this year, Phil Sparrow’s story ‘Theo’).

The vast majority of writers in this collection are female. The experience level of the writers included varies greatly, ranging from a first publication, through to the winner of this year’s VPLA for an unpublished manuscript, and others with major awards and big-name publications under their belts. Casting an eye over the author bios at the back of the book, it looks like this collection could, in years to come, be a bit of an early who’s-who in the world of Australian fiction.

Salcedo’s art work, alluded to in Shibboleth’s cover art, is a huge installation. It’s a fissure in the gallery floor, the kind of damage done by a massive earthquake, only this is man-made. It’s a stunning image that stands at the centre of the award-winning story, but it also provides a wonderful unifying motif for all the stories in the collection.

Again and again, these stories riff on that gap – for better or worse. Maybe it pulls people apart. Maybe it’s something to be overcome. The crack’s still there though. These stories acknowledge the existence of the gaps, and all our attempts and failures to bridge them. In ‘Shibboleth’ it’s what comes between the central characters, and its protagonist scoffs at the tactless metaphor. Throughout the collection, these chasms also exist between carers and patients (’It Used to be a Boyd’, ‘Flight’, ‘Theo’), and between who we are and who we’d rather be (’Teacher’ and ‘Fork in the Path’). It’s the space between the limits of human behaviour – the awful, as in ‘Fork in the Path’ and ‘Composition’, and the redeeming, as in ‘Teacher’ and ‘Flight’. Between the familiar and the strange; exploring the rub of strange places and new experiences, or the moments where the the repetition of the same-old reaches breaking point. Sometimes it’s literal, where physical structures separate us, like animal enclosures (‘Thirsty’) and wards (‘Theo’). Or perhaps it’s the space either side of death (‘Flight’ and ‘A House’) or grief (’Before they had Teeth’, ‘The Sea also Waits’). Again and again, the stories in Shibboleth act as meditations on what brings us together and what sets us apart. It looks at the tears – large and small – that appear in the fabric of the things that make us human. The faults and cracks. And the tiny, skipped rhythms of everyday life.

The Southwest Prize winning entry, ‘Theo’ (Phil Sparrow) is about the ease with which we can slip away from being able to care for ourselves. It talks of those complacent to this reality as ‘They who thought they were safe’. Shibboleth, as a whole, cumulates as a study in the faults in that safety. At any moment things could change; these stories are pivotal moments.

The collection is at its best when the stories act as a catalogue of things that the form does so well: tiny moments of unease, glittering language, and stunning central images (such as Shibboleth, or the baby trees at Tana Toraja).

I didn’t love all the stories in this collection – with 24 stories in there, that was always unlikely. But the ones that got me really got me. ‘Le Farfalle’ and ‘Before they had Teeth’ both left me wanting more. My favourite story, ‘It Used to be a Boyd’ is about a mock wedding that happens every week in a nursing home, because ‘everyone loves a wedding’. The aged care worker at its centre, and the resident with whom she connects, felt very real.

There’s a paradox in really good short stories where they manage to feel bigger than they actually are, for their gesturing beyond the bounds of their page length. At their longest, the stories in Shibboleth run for 12 pages. At their shortest, just four. They’re very ‘just-one-more’ish, and fit easily into commutes or before-bed reads.

In just a few sittings, Shibboleth took me around the world, into lives I’d never heard of. It introduced me to characters both sympathetic and not, and to writers I can’t wait to hear more from (Magdalena McGuire and Cassie Hamer, I’m looking at you!). It pivoted gracefully around the chasm introduced in Jo Riccioni’s title story, and made me consider the turning points and breaks in my own life.

Entries for next year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition are open, with Ellen van Neerven editing. If this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, the competition will be fierce.

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