Ordinary Matter

Laura Elvery

Ordinary Matter
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Ordinary Matter

Laura Elvery

In 1895 Alfred Nobel rewrote his will and left his fortune made in dynamite and munitions to generations of thinkers. Since 1901 women have been honoured with Nobel Prizes for their scientific research twenty times, including Marie Curie twice.

Spanning more than a century and ranging across the world, this inventive story collection is inspired by these women whose work has altered history and saved millions of lives. From a transformative visit to the Grand Canyon to a baby washing up on a Queensland beach, a climate protest during a Paris heatwave to Stockholm on the eve of the 1977 Nobel Prize ceremony, these stories interrogate the nature of inspiration and discovery, motherhood and sacrifice, illness and legacy.

Sometimes the extraordinary pivots on the ordinary.      

Review

Laura Elvery has merged art and science with a clever twist in her collection of short stories, Ordinary Matter. She has won multiple awards for her stories, and her previous collection, Trick of the Light, was widely praised. Each of the stories in this collection is prefaced with the name of one of the twenty Nobel Prize-winning female scientists. While some of the stories involve the scientist herself, others contain only vague references to the nature of her work. Connecting these dots is something astute readers will enjoy.

The longest (and in my opinion, the best) story in the collection is ‘Wingspan’. This piece imagines a young Elizabeth Blackburn – Australia’s only female Nobel Prize winner – on a day of great excitement. While her anticipation is about the visitors coming for dinner, Elizabeth has also come to an exciting realisation – she wants to become an artist like her mother’s friend, not a scientist as she had previously decided. The whole day she feels electric with this secret. Conversely, her mother, Val, feels ill at ease. Her friend Pam’s arrival stirs up a familiar discomfort, especially when their conversation threatens to expose their disparate lifestyles.

Other stories feature Marie Curie and her daughters (one also won a Nobel Prize), a woman who has been disgraced in her postgraduate lab work, and a young woman watching her mother die from cancer. Elvery writes dialogue beautifully, and her characters are fully realised, especially in the longer stories.

There are a number of stories about student scientists or what a life in science or academia might look like. The final story, ‘A Brief History of Petroleum’, follows Phoebe’s commitment to both chemistry and her enigmatic American teacher, until a life-changing event occurs in her final year of school. Despite this, her path in science resumes and her discoveries offer solutions to environmental issues, leaving the collection on a promising note.


Annie Condon works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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