Shirl by Wayne Marshall

It’s evident from the first page of Wayne Marshall’s debut collection of short stories, Shirl, that writing is inescapable for the author. As deep and fundamental as this creative drive may be – and deep it must be as Marshall, a new father at the time, made a ritual of writing on Friday mornings before his chemo treatments – it leaps forth in surprising tales wired with satire. The originality of his stories must surely have contributed to the shortlisting for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2019 of an earlier (and partial) incarnation of this collection under its original title, Frontier Sport.

Marshall flouts expectations of small-town life and contemporary masculinity in ways that are both a challenge and an homage to the classic Australian tall tale. In ‘Cod Opening’, the memorable catch of the day is neither fish nor woman. Similarly, in ‘A Night Out’, Geoff’s new partner isn’t quite what his (unhappily) married friend had envisaged. The price of commitment to sport in the average Australian household is sometimes at the forefront of these stories (‘Gibson’s Bat ’n’ Ball’ and ‘Our Year Without Footy’, in particular) and yet also present in these stories is a reckoning with human purpose more generally, and with mortality. Marshall questions how we value reality in the moment, and how perceptions change after dramatic events – involuntarily experienced or actively purchased. The compulsion to write and the importance of stories have consequences on and off the page in stories that blend art and life and their imitations of one another (‘Weekend in Albury’, for example).

In these stories expensive intergalactic brides come with unexpected baggage, aliens ban football on pain of annihilation, emotion leads to the guillotine, and one man’s devotion to his dogs has terrible consequences for a stranger from the hills. You won’t forget them in a hurry.

Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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Wayne Marshall

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