Permafrost by S.J. Norman

The seven short stories in S.J. Norman’s Permafrost present us with word-etchings of varied settings – apartments, hotel rooms and front yards – against which the emotional action shudders uneasily into frame. Some of these brittle, little first-person fictions unspool in locations that were once easily reached on a pre-Covid planet: Japan, Germany, Poland, England. There’s no doubt, however, that Norman’s narrators hail from Australia, and the remaining stories take place back here, in a Canberra hotel or a bookshop in Sydney. Though each one of the tales is self-contained, each narrating voice feels less like a separate character and more like a point on a continuum pulsing with feline wariness, sardonic humour, and pre-damaged vulnerability.

In the story ‘Whitehart’, we travel out of London and into the woods, where we meet a man with fine white fur and a missing middle finger. In ‘Hinterhaus’, we’re huddled in the Berlin cold but Tobias, the goth at the bakery across the street, keeps us fed. In ‘Unspeakable’, we arrive at the haunted site of Auschwitz-Birkenau after dark but Wojciech the guide agrees to show us around, even though he is menaced by the ghosts that choke that place.

Norman’s strongest and longest story is the last one, ‘Playback’, in which an experimental musician returns from Europe to the New South Wales coastal town of their youth in the expectation that they’ll soon be joined by their partner, who’ll bring the rest of their music gear. Things don’t go to plan, however, and the musician spends the story knocking about the town, bumping into memories recent and ancient, and pursued by their own ghosts as well as the ones which belong to the place itself. ‘Playback’ is a summing-up and a reflection of the spirit running through all the stories in this bitter, beguiling collection: even though this atomised world is falling apart, if you can pay attention and listen well enough, you will be rewarded with discoveries.

Bernard Caleo is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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SJ Norman

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