Sunday, July 15, 2007

A craftsman at his best

A book of short stories by a writer as gifted as David Malouf is an unrivaled delight. This assiduous writer is a novelist (his Remembering Babylon was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1993), poet, playwright and librettist. Here, all his short story collections, including the previously unpublished Every Move You Make, are collated in what is easily one of the more potent literary displays this summer.

There is a pre-occupation in Malouf's work with exploring the spiritual. His stories, such as The Sun in Winter, are steeped in Biblical imagery. Yet, it is not the religious that the prism of his writing distills. He works such wonders with the language that his tales reach beyond into a sphere of heightened subtlety. In Every Move You Make, a woman grieving the death of her boyfriend returns to everyday life with the simple act of picking up a fallen matchstick:

Shocked that it weighed so little. So little that she might not recall, later, the effort it had cost her , this first move towards taking up again, bit by bit, the weight of her life.

The Australian outback is central to Malouf's work. The stories in this collection, which comprises four sub-collections – Every Move You Make, Dream Stuff, Antipodes and Child's Play – discuss a variety of subjects, from homophobia in Closer to the depredations of celebrity in A Traveller's Tale.

Yet, Australia is a central theme that unifies them all –the lure of the bush running across the pages like an invisible connecting thread. For instance, in The Valley of Lagoons, as a hunting party gathers in north Queensland, ties of friendship are tested against the imposing unfamiliarity of the wilderness.

Malouf's stories teem with climactic revelations so that there is a sense of wonder and horror at what may come. In Great Day, a former civil servant is gladdened at the burning of a local museum: the flaming of a slice of personal history. Malouf makes it an inquiry into historical guilt:

What we dare not do ourselves, he found himself thinking, they do for us, the muggers, the smashers, the grab merchants. When we punish them it is to hide our secret guilt.

As these stories suggest, Malouf is a master at making us fall for characters that appear and disappear within the span of a few pages. His character-driven writings are nevertheless accomplished forays into history and the Australian landscape.

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From Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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