A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop
‘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.