September 2019

Noted
by Stephanie Bishop

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe
The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

A common tenet of the short story form is that it has no time to spare, and for this reason a story often commences as far into the action as possible, pushing up close to a single moment of reckoning. For Anton Chekhov this meant throwing away the first half of the story. For Kurt Vonnegut it resulted in a command that one begin as close to the end as possible. Josephine Rowe, in her second collection, Here Until August, tests this rule to marked effect. Instead of commencing near the end of an event, the 10 stories in this collection come as close as they can to a moment of life’s re-beginning, taking the reader up to the precipice of change rather than its culmination.

At the heart of each story is the close exchange between two people, who are either intimate with one another or forced into a scenario of intimacy. The relationship is either remembered or its unfolding narrated more directly by one of the two. Often the narrator is the one left behind in the wake of a death, or disappearance, or some stranger form of separation: one brother trying to comprehend the fatal deceit of another, a woman mourning the sudden death of her partner, another navigating the loss of a stillborn child. Each story spirals through this territory of incomprehension, giving us glimpses of the past that has brought the narrator to this point, while asking in a more urgent fashion how they are to go on, and what life should look like now. The stories end at the very point when we feel, again, the possibility of recommencement: “Your whole life could be like this. Arriving always in darkness and waking to something extraordinary.”

Rowe’s sensitivity to the presence of thresholds, to internal borders previously unknown, is compounded with a fine sense of landscape and setting. If each character stands at a juncture, this instability is interpreted in relation to the places they inhabit. In “A Small Cleared Space”, the woman who has lost her child eight months into pregnancy comes away to a cabin in the snow, where the frozen surfaces of surrounding ponds may or may not be safe to cross, although cross them she does. Elsewhere, highways proliferate, as do windows. Characters are hemmed in, their living rooms appear like “big glowing terrarium[s]”, they trap their thoughts “like a spider under an upturned glass”. But there is always a road out, one that a woman might follow “while she waits for her life to come find her”.

Rowe’s leisurely telling lulls one into a false sense of ease; hers is a voice to be given into. But the narrative is always punctured, and at just the right moment, by her impeccable timing: we never escape these stories unscathed. In different ways each story draws us into the darkest and most precarious phase of transformation.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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