The Double (And Other Stories) by Maria Takolander
This debut short-story collection from Maria Takolander, a Melbourne-born and Geelong-based author and academic, is eerily beautiful and not for the faint of heart. The Double takes its title and epigraph from Dostoyevsky’s tale of a timid man plagued by his extroverted doppelgänger – and, like that classic novella, it’s the kind of book that will unnerve you and keep you up at night.
The Double begins with eight pitch-dark stories in which emotional and physical desolation are often linked. A man trudges along an ice-slicked street to find loneliness in a bar and his own home. Three ageing sisters subsist in marshlands ‘sinking into nothing’. A man hides out on an isolated farm: ‘the red earth stretched further than he would have thought possible’. These are also stories rich and vivid with unsettling sensory details, particularly of the human body. There are devastating, gut-wrenching moments. Mirrors and reflections are drawn in with subtlety and to great effect. In particular, the black mirror-lake that appears in the collection’s eponymous story is rendered unforgettable.
The last of the eight individual stories, ‘The War of the Worlds’, is my favourite – a bold literary sci-fi tale that focuses on the women and children left behind in a resources-stripped city during an interplanetary war. I was also impressed by Takolander’s deft use of diverse literary allusions throughout the collection – to Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, Stephen King, Freud and others, with many brought to immediate attention by the stories’ titles.
The Double concludes with a blackly humorous, absurdist series of four stories involving a mysterious and dangerous figure called Zed Roānkin (the first of these, ‘A Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry’, won the Australian Book Review short-story competition in 2010). Roānkin is perhaps a tormentor, perhaps a saviour – there’s a delicious twist. Torment, as Dostoyevsky and Takolander have found, can be entertaining and deeply rewarding.
Kate Goldsworthy is a freelance reviewer.