13 tales of seperation: a review of “Scission” by Tim Winton

scission‘Scission’ mean the act of  division, separation, cutting or severing and is the theme that overrides 13 exquisite short stories in a Tim Winton‘s book that bears this title.

Arguably, Tim Winton is Australia’s greatest living writer, a masterful story-teller whose skills have been recognised both in Australia and overseas. Reading his long form novels is an intense experience with quirky, awkward and archetypal Australian characters that live and breathe beyond the page.

He achieves the same effect with these 13 stories, which will appeal to anyone who likes plot-driven character studies and what drives human action.

In the first story, titled ‘Secrets’, a young girl called Kylie is left to play on her own while her mother and her mother’s boyfriend Philip, disappear into the bedroom. Kylie spends her days down the well – a place she is forbidden by Philip to explore – with a photo album, trying to find a picture of her father. An act of banal, childish brutality shocks the reader at the end.

In another story ‘A blow, A kiss’, Albie and his father are on their way back from fishing for salmon. They come across a motorbike rider who has crashed by the roadside. The night turns into a rite of passage for Albie as they deliver the injured man to his father, a brutal, unforgiving bastard who rages at his drunken son, bashing his head against the metal tray of his pick-up.

“Would you do that to me” Albie asks.

The truck slowed and stopped.

“Lord no. God A’mighty, no!” replies his father.

Albie’s father, in act of tenderness, places his knuckles on Albie’s cheek and says he’s sorry about the salmon they lost earlier in the evening (they buried them but could not find them later).

“The truck moved forward again. Albie felt those knuckles on his cheek still and knew, full to bursting, that that was how God would touch someone. He neither moved nor spoke, and the truck trundled on.

In ‘Getting ahead’ a recently widowed mother gets an idea to rent out her state government home and move the family into cramped flat in some crazy attempt to make money. The tenant, an elderly lady named “Mrs Marsdale” moves in and brings with her many cats. She never pays the rent. The floor becomes covered in “kitty litter, wet newspapers, and wads of phlegmy cotton” – it’s the great Australian dream of property investing gone horribly wrong.

In probably the most uplifting story, ‘Thomas Awkner Floats’ a seemingly simple-minded man is asked to fly across the country to meet his uncle and deliver a parcel for his criminal family outside the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. His response is an act of rebellion, a liberating moment.

A third of the book is taken up by the short story and title of the book. “Scission” and is the best of the bunch. In a series of present day scenes and flashbacks, Winton tells the story of Rosemary McCollough, an attractive wife in a repressed marriage.

They move to a new housing commission in Perth popular with young couples. Her husband,  a signwriter, likes to tune his motor car while his friends gawk at his wife. Rosemary becomes friends with June, her neighbour. Then one day a smartly dressed man and a woman come to their door selling subscriptions to “Pure Metaphysical Knowledge” – a journal tied to a cultish religious movement. Copies begin arriving in the  McCollough’s mailbox:

The McColloughs begin to behave differently. They were never seen outdoors from Friday night until Sunday morning. No lights were seen in the house. The children appeared sullen.

This is the catalyst for great change, upheaval and scission in the McCollough family – an act of seperation and also one of liberation.

At its heart, the 13 stories in Scission are about people searching for the basic human desires – love, pride, companionship, respect, revenge, financial success and joy.

The stories should be read slowly and the characters savoured.

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