April 2016

Noted
by Brenda Walker

‘The High Places’ by Fiona McFarlane
Hamish Hamilton; $32.99

Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest was one of the outstanding fiction publications of 2013: a novel about the interdependent bond between Ruth, an old woman with a fading memory, and Frida, who may or may not be a carer sent by the government. Its great charm lies in our inability to decide what is real in Ruth’s memories and perceptions, and what is part of her gentle dementia. The novel won three awards and was shortlisted for many others. The High Places is the Sydney author’s second book: a collection of 13 stories told with the same flair and delicacy as The Night Guest.

These stories are often about delusions, uncertainties or outright hallucinations – an extension of the dementia-induced mysteriousness of The Night Guest. Such shifts of understanding can be comical or troubling. A stuffy man behaves as though his mother’s good luck is his own. A cadaverous minister shocks his congregation by announcing that his parrot is an intermediary between man and God. Ghosts inhabit a pond. A woman en route to California confesses to her sister that she expects to meet her dead husband there. A bird in a sad boarding house may be an automaton: ancient and mechanical. A whole town is so entranced by a period drama staged in its streets that it adopts 19th-century dress and manners. A marine biologist imagines that Charles Darwin is at his side. A farmer suffering through a long drought sees his dead flock resurrected. More sinisterly, a teenager sleeping in her mother’s bed suddenly understands that her mother’s boyfriend could disastrously mistake her for her mother.

In both The Night Guest and The High Places, McFarlane touches on conventional religious beliefs and the oddity of some rituals, and vacillations between uncertainty and belief underpin many of these stories. The strange bird in the boarding house is a kind of sentinel species for a bride and groom: if the groom visibly wavers from his wife’s belief that the bird is mechanical, he loses her love. It’s a strange test of faith, in a collection of stories about surprising but oddly convincing truths and half-truths.

The stories in The High Places are highly polished and remarkably consistent in quality. (The design deserves comment too: like The Night Guest, The High Places has an elegant and whimsical cover, as attractive as the contents of the book.) Fiona McFarlane is clearly going to be a substantial presence in Australian literature and beyond.

Brenda Walker

Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.

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In This Issue

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