Welcome to Normal by Nick Earls
Eight stories make up Nick Earls’s most recent collection, Welcome to Normal – each of them vivid, self-contained examples of what longform storytelling can achieve. Caught somewhere between a novella and short fiction, these pieces give something of the depth and detail of full-length work, with all the necessary sparseness and brevity of a short story, and personally, it’s a genre I’d love to see more of.
Earls is a veteran writer of 12 novels, amongst them 48 Shades of Brown, The True Story of Butterfish and Zigzag Street, and there’s a completeness to his writing that shows. Or, to talk of the reverse, a skill that means you never feel the labour of it.
Each of these stories manages to stand apart from the other, yet within an arms-reach of all is a keen eye for the most explosive, invisible moments in everyday life – the realisation that you will never be young again, that your parents too are flawed, dissatisfied and tragically human, and that partnership is as much about love as it is the imperfections that you’ve melded long ago. The characters here are all expats of a kind, forced to react when thrown out of their comfort zones, through travel, separation or unwanted company. Each of them undergoing seismic shifts that take place internally, without anyone noticing and within the blink of an eye.
Standouts for me were the title piece, ‘Welcome to Normal’, and ‘The Heart of Robert the Bruce’. The former is a quietly powerful story of attraction and mismatches, when an employee finds himself sharing an evening with the wife of his boss’s best friend in small town Illinois. The latter follows two lovers who decide to tell a lie about each other every night to their fellow holidaymakers while in Spain, making for sharply executed comic moments, as well as saying much about their prejudices, empathy and mutual flaws.
Welcome to Normal is out now.
Jessica Au works for Readings Online and is the author of Cargo. Occasionally, you can find her down at Readings St Kilda.