March 2019

by Helen Elliott

‘Zebra and Other Stories’ by Debra Adelaide
Difficult-to-grasp characters populate this new collection

The zebra, all sooty eyes and unthrifty lashes, is a charming animal. It shares a genus with the horse and is a favourite of artists and designers because of those stripes. So when, in Debra Adelaide’s long short story “Zebra”, the female prime minister receives a zebra as a gift, she is puzzled but pleased. The zebra has an enchantingly gentle demeanour. The PM, with similar personality characteristics, stables her round the back of the garden. They become companionable.

A fable about what it might be like to have another woman in The Lodge, “Zebra” is as beguiling as the animal itself. The PM, a knowledgeable gardener, a woman who reads, understands and can then precis even the most tedious reports, has a quality that causes every man she comes across to be eating out of her hand. Malcolm, her executive assistant, fancies her, although he would never be so bold as to let on. The PM runs the country very much as a benevolent lady of the manor would run her personal fiefdom. Just substitute a zebra for the unicorn. A domestic idyll à la ACT.

The domestic spins busily through all 14 of these stories (Picador; $29.99). Adelaide is in the great tradition of (mainly) female writers who map the psychological via quotidian detail. Styrofoam cups, beanbags, wardrobes that smell of old clothes, children that smell of children (or wardrobes), and dogs that just smell all feature. Spices, kitchens, food have particular places.

Behind all the stories is an imagination of tropical abundance. But something wilts after the initial impulse. These stories of people in various states of breakdown – parting, ill, grieving – never quite move further than the lovely imagination of their author. “I Am at Home Now”, a historical mini-drama featuring Bennelong and the Mrs Phillips he famously referenced in a 1796 letter, has impeccable intention, but it makes for uncomfortable reading not because it is a provocation but because it is patronising. The tone is false.

Except for the amiable PM and the zebra, these characters are difficult to grasp. Who are these self-obsessives? Where do they live? Why do they behave, speak like this? Didn’t I know them in the 1980s, these people who tinker with their emotions rather than engage? They still exist? To engage a busy reader, a short story should aim for containment and currency. All that crafted minutiae suffocates a short story and the imagination; the impulse can’t move under the weight. Unlike Debra Adelaide’s other works, these are not for me.

Still you might do worse than buy a book for the story named on the cover or for the cover itself, where the imagination flares into a performance of wit and beauty.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.


March 2019

In This Issue


Trains, pains and Berejiklian

Will a big infrastructure spend help or hinder NSW’s Coalition government this election?

Image of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 2010

Rats, heroes and Kevin Rudd’s ‘The PM Years’

This memoir answers some questions about his deposal and return but raises others


Tuckshop intervention

How did buying lunch in a Northern Territory school get so complicated?


Screen addiction

As more of our lives are lived online, more people aren’t coping

Read on

Cold was the ground: ‘Sorry for Your Trouble’

Richard Ford delivers an elegant collection of stories of timeworn men and women contemplating the end

Image of Australians queuing at Centrelink in Brisbane.

Moral bankruptcy

Robodebt stemmed from the false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor, but the government still clings to moralistic language

Image of Gough Whitlam in October 1975

It’s about time

The High Court’s landmark ruling on the ‘Palace Papers’ is a win for Australian social democracy

Image of Robyn Davidson

Something mythic

For Robyn Davidson, her acclaimed memoir ‘Tracks’ was an act of freedom whose reception hemmed her in