Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Like Being A Wife

By Catherine Harris
Published by Vintage Australia, 2010
Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

Where to begin? How to describe this collection of short stories? At first glance, the title, the typeset even (nicely spaced, easy to read) scream chick-lit. Not that I really like that particular terminology, but it gives you some idea of what I mean. But, this is a collection published by Vintage, Australia purveyors of serious literature. The first story which bears the title of the collection is light, frothy and funny and yet you recognise already, that something more than frothy is happening here. These are mostly first person narratives, providing an engaging immediacy and intimacy in the reading. Each story in some way or another reflects the very catchy title of the collection in a deliciously subversive way.

I was hooked entirely by page 59, with the story ‘Mick, Agapanthus, the Unfinished TV Stand...” which starts out with the line “Mummy says you don’t love her enough”. This is Olivia talking to her Daddy, Nathan. What follows is a deceptively benign slice of family life. We’re inside the marriage of Nathan and his wife Joannie, their two girls Heidi and Olivia and the best part for me is the family bike ride, the interaction between the children, their parents, and the undercurrent between the parents throughout the story. Somehow, Harris knows just exactly how families work and how they fail and the ordinariness that leads to our downfall(s). Each story is inside some sort of relationship that is either failing, about to fail, or surviving in spite of their failing. And on the front cover, Fay Weldon is quoted as saying “She’s got us all taped, she’s a genius.”

The story ‘Sabbatical’ about a couple who have moved to California and are being ignored by a couple in their new social circle is a delight. It’s actually at the heart, a story of sisters and family, but also our insecurities and dislocation. It skewers the petty envies that pervade our lives and Harris is like a surgeon with a very sharp knife who amputates a rotten finger, or applies an antiseptic dressing to a crusty sore. She works skilfully and with precision, there’s no blood, just the knowledge of your wound.

Even the titles of the stories are interesting. “How Do I Begin To Explain This to You” is one title and I won’t give away this particular love story but it borders on a form of parody at times and then it redeems itself and nails something almost indefinable, that makes us who we are, the strange ways we think and act. On the back cover of this collection, Nick Earls says “Catherine Harris finds more ways to be funny than I could count, yet she can cast a light into a dark corner before you know she’s done it.” There is a Breakfast Show Host story told through the eyes of the Breakfast Show Hosts Assistant Producer (very pertinent right now). The story is called “Our Breakfast Hostess, or How I Gained 15 Kilos – A Memoir” and this is the protagonist...”Oh lament, as a person, I am bad, bad, bad. A great heaffalump of wickedness in a Cue business suit. The sweetness of the icing hurts my teeth.” And, here’s a small excerpt from another story “A Great Leap of Stupid Faith”, the protagonist laments at the end (oh, it’s far too complicated to tell you how we get to this but rest assured it is a messy, messy adulterous quadrangle) ... “and I could have found that interesting, that kind of lunging forward into the unknown, a great leap of stupid faith on his behalf. It might even have carried me along for a while – the heat of all that optimism – like a touring exhibition chugging from town to different town.”

Another, over the top, but hilarious story is told through the eyes of the best friend of the potential Big M Model casting a light on the weird and wonderful world of fame as an aim in itself, regardless. Now and then felt I was in a Kath and Kim sitcom, in particular a story titled “Too Many People” but through my laughter, I felt something for the main character Jansey, and you will too as she struggles with the reality of her relationship with her mother. The truth is that in all these short (and they are short) stories, you do feel something, which is surprising and catches you unaware.

The stories appear light-hearted but they are seriously funny and seriously good. Harris writing appears so effortless, akin to someone in a bar hurling darts at the dartboard without really watching, laughing even, and scoring a bulls-eye every time.

I really like this collection and as it is the writer’s first published book, it is very impressive. I am in awe of the command of her craft by this writer. I say, go out and buy a copy, grab a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy. I laughed out loud often and heartily. Think Charlotte Grimshaw but fewer words, more levity and a lot more laughter. It is very, very Australian, smart, contemporary and downright funny. All of the stories are indeed about or reflect something of the title.


Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog.

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