A Constant Hum

Alice Bishop

A Constant Hum
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A Constant Hum

Alice Bishop

Before the bushfires-before the front of flames comes roaring over the hills-the ridges are thick with gums.

After the fires, the birds have gone. There is only grey ash and melted metal, the blackened husks of cars.

And the lost people: in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the city, on the TV news in borrowed clothes, or remembered in flyers on a cafe wall.

A Constant Hum
grapples with the aftermath of disaster with an eye for telling detail. Some of these stories cut to the bone; others are empathetic stories of survival, even hope.

All are gripping and beautifully written, heralding the arrival of an important new voice in literary fiction.


‘I learned pretty quickly that people don’t like talking about my work,’ a character says midway through Alice Bishop’s debut, A Constant Hum. The character continues, ‘Unless there’s an unusually gruesome or TV-worthy happy story: the more regular gory stuff, it’s just a reminder of the uncomfortable ordinariness of disaster.’ The work she’s referring to is her job as a nurse and the disaster is the Black Saturday fires that ravaged Victoria just over a decade ago,

Set in the aftermath of these fires, A Constant Hum is a story collection that draws from those affected by the disaster. Along with the longer stories are some as short as a paragraph, and this, at its most successful, has a cumulative effect. We witness the full impact of the fires, from stories of those mourning their dead husbands, to the strained awkwardness of being forced into social situations with other survivors, and while the characters change, we’re always mindful of their context.

A Constant Hum’s other strength is at the sentence level, and Bishop’s descriptions have both an other-worldly and strong, realistic typicalness to them: ‘The Town Hall’s floors have been swept and mopped for midyear primary-school performances: for kids dressed in pipe-cleaner headbands and cardboard-box costumes doing dance routines.’ Or, ‘His forest fresh aftershave makes me think, for a moment, about what his bathroom looks like at home.’

It’s easy to take a cynical view of the connected short-story collection since, apart from a few exceptions, they often feel like a hesitant move by a publisher, an attempt to shove the less popular form of the short-story collection into the more popular shape of the novel. Alice Bishop’s collection takes a much more successful route, a collection linked together in tone.

Chris Somerville is part of the online Readings team.

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