Review | Wednesday 27 June 2012
One of the problems with many short story collections – particularly those that gather together the disparate works of a single author over time – is the tendency to repeat the same few notes. Finding one’s voice, or fine-tuning a tried and true formula over several different publications, can lead to a dangerous sense of repetition when amassed together in novel-length.
Jennifer Mills is the author of several books – including Gone (2011) and The Diamond Anchor (2009). The Rest is Weight casts a wide net, pulling together stories from venerated publications such as Overland, Meanjin and Black Inc’s Best-ofs over the years, and it’s a sign of Mills’s strength as a writer, and the breadth and courage of her range, that the collections falls into none of these common traps.
Rather, this is a publication that leaps from perspective to perspective in octaves. We open with the haunting story of a young boy and his quiet empathy both for the horses in his care and the criminal in their midst, the telling managing to be both contemporary, mournful and archaic at the same time. The concluding piece couldn’t be further from this beginning – a Russian cloud-seeding pilot seeking to atone for his last mistake – in a story that walks to the edge of futurism and back again.
Between these brackets we are taken from Beijing to Shanghai, from urban Adelaide to rural Australia, from Russia to the desperate borders of Mexico. Mills has travelled widely, including taking part in an Asialink residency in Beijing in 2010, and currently lives in South Australia.
Her background as a poet also comes through strongly. There’s a precision and coolness to the words, as well as a palette of moods and tones, that go towards creating beautifully varied worlds. Several of the stories read more like vignettes – tiny glimpses of a life or slice of time: cowboys, performers and feathered boy-angels in ‘The taxi driver’; oxygen tanks, abandoned sons, hatchbacks and quiet suburban imaginings in ‘The air you need’; troopers, rifles, ropes, tobacco and wine in ‘Look down with me’.
Yet the stronger pieces are undoubtedly those that combine this flair with narrative weight: ‘Aperture’, which follows the gradual drifting apart of a mixed-raced couple in modern China, ‘The jungle will swallow anything’, about a young girl’s awakening to a much more adult world as she observes her mother and her clients at a roadside diner, and ‘The milk in the sky’, the saddest story of two women and the reasons they break apart.
Incidentally, Mills has recently been announced as the new fiction editor of Overland, a welcome move and perhaps another indication of the vitalness of our independent journals and anthologies to the growing and supporting of the local writing scene.
Jessica Au works for Readings Online and is the author of Cargo. Occasionally, you can find her down at Readings St Kilda.