A Couple of Things Before the End: Stories

Sean O'Beirne

A Couple of Things Before the End: Stories
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A Couple of Things Before the End: Stories

Sean O'Beirne

A woman on a passenger ship in 1958 gets involved with a young, wild Barry Humphries. A man looks back to the 1970s, and his time as a member of Australia’s least competent scout troop. In 1988, a teenage boy recalls his sexual initiation, out on the tanbark. In 2015, two sisters text in Kmart about how to manage their irascible, isolated mum.

Then, in the near future, a racist demagogue - a kind of Australian Trump - talks to the press the day after his electoral triumph. And as the cities heat up and lose their water, a lady from one of the ‘better suburbs’ makes every effort to get her family into a gated community.

There’s so much of Australia here, in all its glories and its foibles - and its insularity and fear. These stories are a reflection of where we are now, and where we may be headed. Bitingly satirical, outstandingly original and written in a remarkable range of voices, A Couple of Things Before the End is a stand-out fiction debut of 2020.

‘These voices, so superbly heard and rendered, threw me into fits of laughter and slyly broke my heart.’ -Helen Garner

‘Astonishing … an inventive collection of missives from the end of history. Complicated and savage and difficult and funny and melancholy, it’s both harsh and a caress. How do we speak and write into a future? I think Sean O'Beirne is showing us one way of doing it.’ - Christos Tsiolkas  

Review

All hail Sean O’Beirne, and his brilliant debut collection of short stories, A Couple of Things Before the End, a timely excoriation of the nostalgic myths of Australianness. With a master satirist’s hand, O’Beirne exposes the failings of our perceived values of mateship, luck, and egalitarianism, writing of this land of latent homophobia and class privilege, with its strange and violent colonial traditions, and the contracting grip of a reactionary right wing. One of the key organising tropes of this collection is how we communicate with each other, and the ways in which these modes themselves impact on what we can or do say to each other. From the prime ministerial press conference, to email, online chat below the line, and text message, to the traditions of oral history and diary entries, each story is live to the ways we make our reality through discourse.

I loved so many of the stories in this book, but a few keep replaying in my mind. ‘Jack’ is the story of a twentieth century life, told in the words of an ordinary man. It is somehow both a finely tuned character study, and the story of a whole generation of men. ‘Missy’ is a series of increasingly desperate pleas via email from a woman hoping to use her social contacts to get into a gated community now that the climate crisis is making her city unlivable. ‘Julian, 11am’ is a transcript from a therapist’s office, with a client tying himself in ever-tightening knots of verbosity to try to understand himself. O’Beirne’s writing is precise, but also incredibly fluid and reflexive – folding itself around each of its subjects so effectively, that at times it feels like nonfiction. This is Australia as it was, as it is, and as it will be. Read A Couple of Things Before the End, and weep, but also laugh, at our collective ridiculousness. Original, at times confronting, and with a fullness of vision, please find your way to this book before the end arrives.


Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.

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