‘No Small World: a review of Tara June Winch’s “After the Carnage”’, by Jennifer Down

I was in high school when I read Winch’s first book, 2006’s Swallow the Air. It taught me the possibilities of linked short stories, which I’d never read before. Her spare, careful language never suffered from the tedium that sometimes accompanies minimalist prose. It seemed to swim. Its precision was poetic. The story of a young Aboriginal woman searching for her father, it was widely acclaimed, winning the David Unaipon and Dobbie awards, as well as both the New South Wales and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Winch, an Australian writer of Wiradjuri, Afghan and English heritage, now lives in France, and has spoken before about her love of travel. Her second book, After the Carnage, is collection of short fiction that traverses the globe, examining characters often left at the margins of society, and, of course, of fiction—migrants, Aboriginal people, single mothers, ‘at risk’ children in unstable homes—with a deft, light touch.

These stories seem to finish on an inhale. When Winch pauses at the moment of clarity, or doom, or hesitation, her characters are suspended there. It is like a sharp suck of breath. The collection opens with ‘Wager’, and this cracking sentence: ‘By morning someone would die, but at that moment I couldn’t have known.’ Winch quickly and skilfully explores a complex mother–son relationship. I had to be careful not to hurry through it, as is so often my instinct when I fear for children in literature (I’m thinking of David Vann’s Aquarium; Tony Birch’s Blood; Ron Rash’s The Ascent; Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. My heart beats sick and heavy, and no matter how beautiful or dense or spare the writing is, I always want to race through it, hoping to find the children unharmed at the end.) In ‘Wager’, menace rises like steam from the first page, dread building with Winch’s sharp observations and dialogue.

In ‘The Last Class’, which was shortlisted for Overland’s inaugural 2016 Neilma Sydney Short Story Prize, three women become fast friends in a French language class. All three are migrants, and though their backgrounds and circumstances are different, they had all known ‘a little English and Arabic so we were drawn to each other for that reason’. The story touches on racism, poverty, and the West’s abject lack of compassion for refugees, and yet Winch is never heavy-handed. Her characters are, above all else, people.

Winch has, too, a great facility for dark humour. ‘Happy’ follows a couple charged with the responsibility of looking after the neighbours’ titular cat. Jules and Tomas, having ‘traded in their fuller, busier lives in the city’ to settle in a sleepy rural town, wear their disenchantment with the move differently: while Tomas wallows in small-town boredom, Jules, in his ‘Hilfiger farming attire’, is more earnest. ‘He wanted their life in the countryside to work, he wanted friends to visit, to walk in and smell vanilla and summer cherries.’ At first, the story is reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s ‘Neighbours’, as Jules and Tomas individually explore the house next-door, taking minor liberties – Jules prowls around eating chocolates from an open box and inspects mail; Tomas helps himself to a bottle of wine before falling asleep in their bed. And things could very well eddy here, with Jules and Tomas committing these small violations as a means of trying on a different, happier life. But a reader has an instinctual fear for any pet in a story – and, in this instance, rightly so. A cat named Happy can have only one fate, and so when he wanders to a nearby road, we are horrified but unsurprised. Winch’s dialogue and her unflinching eye for our ugly, sometimes shameful instincts bring a darkly funny shine to the awful.

From time to time, the vignette style of these stories seems to limit them, and a few feel underdone. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a micro view of a life; indeed, this is what short fiction does so well. But in After the Carnage, our view is occasionally so limited as to obstruct insight. ‘Meat House’, for instance, begins with the spectacular end of a marriage (still literally in its honeymoon period) before charting the relationship’s history in an airless ten pages. On one level, the story lays bare the vacuity of middle-class, white-picket-fence heteronormativity. Calling to mind Julie Koh’s recently released short story collection Portable Curiosities, it offers a concise checklist for suburban unhappiness:

I started to take lots of photos of our life, of our fitness binges, or our new furniture, the places we went to, anytime we ate something photogenic. I posted them on Instagram and blogged about a fictional life we had, fake adventures, the one smiling photo out of a hundred smiling photos that was correct. … I had edits of captions going around in my mind all the time, even at the edge of sleeping.

This first-person monologue, however, delivered as an email from the wife to herself, is bookended by third-person sections, and it’s a slightly clumsy device. Similarly, ‘After the Carnage, More’—though compelling—feels as though it could afford to be a little fuller, a little fleshier.

But at its best, Winch’s writing is exact. The details, the places where she chooses to linger, shape our view of her characters, and permit us to live in their bodies, if only briefly. ‘When I was younger,’ begins the narrator in ‘Easter’, ‘I felt as if I could feel everything, and afterward I could own those feelings like objects to revisit.’

This is what it is to write: a certain mummification of memory. Certain details might be warped, or absent, or untrue, and yet once the memory is fixed, its veracity is almost immaterial: it is the truth.

The story continues:

I remember precisely being too young and riding the fair dodgem cars, the thrust, the whirling movement, the thrill of the slow electric chase (I could once evoke the memory intact, with the night’s linger of boiled and fried meats, the warm wafts of powdered sugar on doughnut batter, even the damp smell of turned gravel underfoot, from night coming on in the wet earth of a gullied town oval – each smell was rotated, propelled through the carnival night from a flashing, jerking car).

For an instant, these memories were mine, too. The burning rubber, the damp bitumen, the thickness of old cooking oil – I thought I could remember these things, the smells catching in the back of my throat. And this is, I think, one of the most beautiful and metaphysical things that fiction can achieve.

Jennifer Down is a writer, editor and translator, and the author of Our Magic Hour. Her second book, a short story collection titled Convalescence, will be published in 2017.