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.


A review of “Short Cuts” – nine short stories by short story master Raymond Carver

short cutsI came across my copy of “Short Cuts” by Raymond Carver in much the same way that things happen to characters in his short stories – by a sequence of events that just ‘happened’ to me.

The book had been packed in storage since I don’t know when really, in a cardboard box and brought over to Sydney by my sister and her husband when they emigrated to Australia.

It was delivered to my door in Oak Park, Melbourne by a woman I found online, whom I paid $35 and who had spare space in her car and was driving down to Melbourne from Sydney. I unpacked the cardboard box and placed the book “Short Cuts” in the bookshelf in the lounge, where it remained for a few weeks.

On Monday morning I woke up, dressed for work and realised I’d left my satchel in our daughter’s room with the book I was reading. Not wanting to risk waking her up, I looked for something else to read on the train into work among the books in the lounge.

I chose “Short Cuts” by Raymond Carver, with an introduction by the late US master filmmaker Robert Altman, who constructed his movie “Short Cuts” out of the nine stories in the book, plus one poem.

So one thing led to another, and then another, and then another, and now I find myself contemplating the nine stories and one poem that I read over the past four days.

Raymond Carver was a master of the short story. He is an American literary giant and considered among the greatest exponents of writing a story that can be read and enjoyed in one sitting. He died in 1988, aged 50, from lung cancer, the same year he was posthumously inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In each of the nine stories in Short Cuts (and the poem “Lemonade”) things happen to everyday people.

In one story a couple are asked to look after the flat and feed the cat of their better-off neighbours across the hallway and it becomes the focus of their otherwise mundane lives with comic consequences; in another an out-of-work husband convinces his wife, who works as a waitress in a diner, to lose weight when he overhears other men comment on her thighs when she serves them; in another the pent-up frustrations and libido of a married man leads to unexpected tragedy.

In one of Carver’s most famous short stories, “Will you please be quiet, please?” a quiet evening at home between a husband and wife spirals out of control after an adulterous incident from the past is brought up casually in conversation.

It is a story that taps right into our everyday lives – an evening at home, a chance silly remark (we have all made them) and by the end of the night you’re drunk, alone and sleeping on the couch.

Probably the most famous story in the collection (and re-told in the film “Short cuts” and in the Australian movie “Jindabyne”) is “So much water so close to home” about a group of friends who go fishing and find a dead girl in the river. They deliberate about what to do but eventually decide to tie her to the rocks and continue fishing, notifying the sheriff a few days later. The story is told from the point of view of the appalled wife of Stuart, one of the fisherman, who cannot understand his wife’s rage.

People who have seen Robert Altman’s classic film “Short Cuts” with its inter-weaving storylines set against the backdrop of the sprawling Los Angeles suburbs, will recognise elements of the stories in the film, which have been twisted masterfully by Altman into a cinematic narrative.

Suburbia. Ordinary people. Relationships and chance encounters. Tragedy and kindness. Everyday lives and the things that happen to these lives – these are the subjects that Carver writes about in his concise, but elegant prose.

Here’s a short extract from “So much water so close to home”:

“They fish together every spring and early summer, the first two or three months of the season, before family vacations, little league baseball, and visiting relatives can intrude. They are decent men, family men, responsible at their jobs. They have sons and daughters who go to school with our son, Dean. On Friday afternoon these four men left for a three-day fishing trip to the Naches River. They parked the car in the mountains and hiked several miles to where they wanted to fish. They carried their bedrolls, food and cooking utensils, their playing cards, their whiskey. The first evening at the river, even before they could set up camp, Mel Dorn found the girl floating face down in the river, nude, lodged near the shore in some branches.”

If you like the pared-down writing style of Charles Bukowski (read my review of his hilarious memoir “Hollywood”), George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, you will almost certainly enjoy reading this collection of Carver short stories.