A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley
It is a testament to the quality of Chris Womersley’s short fiction that sixteen of the stories in this collection have already been published in journals such as Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings. These stories, published between 2006 and 2017, stand the test of time and assert Womersley as a powerful writer of the short form.
The publisher describes this collection as ‘macabre and deliciously enjoyable’. But these are no horror stories – Womersley appeals to the reader’s empathy by creating vulnerable characters we start to care for – and only then do circumstances begin to go awry.
In the longest story, ‘Dark the Water, So Deep the Night’, a teenage boy and his brother frequently row across the lake their mother may have drowned in. This lake was formed decades earlier when a flood swallowed an entire town, and prior to her disappearance the mother would swim across the lake each day and tell the narrator elaborate stories of what she had seen in the underwater town. Trying to make sense of the loss of his mother, the narrator seeks a group of itinerant people camping on the other bank of the lake.
Water, and both its lightness and darkness, is a recurring theme in these stories. My favourite story, ‘The Possibility of Water’, is an iconic Melbourne tale of the 1990s. The heroin-addicted narrator and a friend climb the fence of the Fitzroy Pool to seek relief from the heat at night. What they find provides a moment of connection, but for both, the only relief can be found temporarily in drugs. This is a beautiful story; full of the wisdom and wry observations that come from retrospection.
This collection is playful, and skips between the known and unknown, the palatable and uncomfortable. Like water, these stories are unpredictable, often turbulent, and contain great depth.