Smokehouse

Melissa Manning

Smokehouse
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Smokehouse

Melissa Manning

A man watches a boy in a playground and pictures him in the grey wooden shed he’s turned into a home. A woman’s adopted mother dies, reawakening childhood memories and grief. A couple’s decision to move to an isolated location may just be their undoing. A young woman forms an unexpected connection at a summer school in Hungary.

Set in southern Tasmania, these interlinked stories bring into focus the inhabitants of small communities, and capture the moments when life turns and one person becomes another. With insight and empathy, Melissa Manning interrogates how the people we meet and the places we live shape the person we become.

Review

One of the joys of a collection of interlinked short stories is that it illuminates different aspects of character and location from multiple perspectives. Two of the best examples of this are Pulitzer Prize-winners _ Olive Kitteridge_ by Elizabeth Strout and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Melissa Manning’s Smokehouse examines a close-knit community living in Kettering and on Bruny Island in Tasmania. The stories that bookend the collection feature Nora and Tom, and in the initial story, their focus is on building a house. Nora hopes that moving away from the suburbs in Hobart will repair the rifts in their marriage, and give her and Tom swings something to work on together. Without the routine of work each day, however, she feels lost, while Tom goes interstate for his work, and her daughters settle into their new school quickly.

Another critical character, Ollie, features in many of the stories. Escaping a string of losses in Germany, he moves to ‘the bottom of the earth’. The person he is closest to – his uncle Herman – encourages Ollie’s new life and supports him from afar. Walde, a stonemason living in Kettering, builds Nora and Tom’s fireplace. He is a solitary figure dealing with a history of trauma. He is good with his hands but not with people. Walde features in a number of stories yet remains alone, even when he finds out he has a son with an old girlfriend.

Much is made of the chasm between Tasmania’s main island, where Kettering is located, and Bruny Island. Characters drive to the water’s edge to contemplate the lives they’d wished for. The ferry dictates the timing between the main island and its satellite. This divide is a metaphor for all the ways characters don’t connect – for ruined relationships and losses that can’t be rectified.

Smokehouse contains 11 stories, and part of the joy of an interlinked collection is fitting these stories and characters together like jigsaw pieces. The book is enhanced by the beautifully described Tasmanian landscape and weather. There are multiple themes running through the book, and the depth of characterisation makes it a perfect choice for book clubs.


Annie Condon works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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