Friday, May 4, 2012

Ryan O'Neill's Favourite Australian Short Story Collections

In the last few years I’ve been trying to read as many Australian short stories as I can. Below, in no particular order, are some of the best collections I’ve come across so far.

1. Ride a Cock Horse by Gillian Mears (1988) Mears is an exceptionally talented short story writer. This collection leaps about in time to follow the boyhood, young adulthood and old age of Albert, sometimes as the main character, and sometimes as a peripheral one. Towards the end of the book we learn, almost in passing, that Albert has died, and this obliqueness gives added poignancy to his death. Mears is a brilliant practitioner of the ‘linked collection’ or ‘novel in stories,’ a form that continues to be explored in this country through writers such as Patrick Cullen and Gretchen Schirm.

2. The Electrical Experience by Frank Moorhouse (1974) Any discussion of the Australian short story has to acknowledge the immense contribution of Frank Moorhouse, especially the stories he wrote in the 1970s. This collection showcases Moorhouse at his best, as he takes a minor character from one of his earlier books, soda-pop maker and businessman T. George McDowell, and explores his life and times. The stories are interspersed with ‘fragments’ such as quotations from persons real and fictional, and even instructions on how to mix a milk-shake. For me, The Electrical Experience is the best of the many ‘discontinuous narratives’ Moorhouse produced in the 1970s, though all are worth reading.

3. Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard (1963) From Henry Lawson onwards, many Australian short stories have focussed on laconic working class battlers struggling to get by. Shirley Hazzard’s stories are very much removed from this tradition. Hazzard’s comfortably well off, articulate characters have dinner parties and love affairs and vacation across England, Italy and America. They often use language as a weapon, and though they may not face any financial struggles, their lives can still be hell. Without pity Hazzard reveals to us their petty jealousies, their hypocrisy and the lies they tell themselves. The short, last paragraph of her story “The Picnic” is quite brilliant.

Ryan O'Neill's short story collection The Weight of a Human Heart is out now. It's available in print and ebook formats. You can read a story from the book here.

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