Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Families by Vincent O’Sullivan (VUP 2014)

Vincent O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s most esteemed writers that I haven’t read enough of.  I do vividly remember reading O’Sullivan’s Shuriken for School Cert English.  It’s a play about a prisoner of war camp in Featherston which held 50 Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.  Whenever Featherston is mentioned I think of the play and its portrayal of the culture clash between the New Zealand and Japanese soldiers.  O’Sullivan is also the current Poet Laureate, a novelist and academic.  The Families is a collection of short stories.

As the title of the collection suggests, The Families examines the relationships between husbands and wives, siblings, parents and their children, and couples who have no children, and examinations of long term friendships.  While the majority of family relationships examined in the collection are upper middle-class families, there are a few stories with working class people.  What most of the stories have in common is an emotional restraint, the characters inability to discuss feelings frankly, or to have feelings of intimacy in their relationships.  The past is also a preoccupation for the characters.

Another commonality between the stories is the examination of language, finding the rights words, and how some words don’t sound right, or sound worse, than their literal intent.  Memories from war also litter the collection through the characters interest and/or participation in international conflicts.  There are also, and it may be crass for me to mention it, a lot of men clutching women’s breasts and/or making reference to breasts.  Every mention is in keeping with the stories, and I don’t mean to insinuate that the references are vulgar, just that there were frequent mentions of men clutching breasts, and in some instances the manner of clutching are similar i.e. a man standing behind a woman and reaching over her shoulder.

Wellington is also the scene for the majority of the stories.  One of the aspects I enjoy about reading stories from my place in the world is that I can see the characters travelling along the roads that I travel on too.  While the physical location of the stories was familiar, the preoccupations with aging, death and long term relationships wasn’t really something I could intimately relate to, however “On Another Note”, the title story of the collection, and “Luce”, have characters that are at a similar stage of life that I am.

I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Munro’s short stories at the moment – trying to see how she extends the form – and admiring how her stories feel like novels in their complexity of human interactions.  O’Sullivan’s collection is in a similar vein.  Like Munro, the effects of the war litter O’Sullivan’s stories, as does the importance of place, and both writers have confident and distinctive voices, and use language seamlessly.  The gentle pace of both writers narratives belie the emotional impact of the stories, some of which are longer than 5000 words.

I do wonder whether “The Families” was the best story to represent the collection.  To me, the lasting impression I get, is of older couples coming to terms with their lives and relationships, rather than the parent-child dynamic.  However, on flicking through the collection, I can’t see another story that would encapsulate the collection…perhaps “Holding On” because of the connotations of the title.  I also don’t really like the cover – it’s too stark for the subtlety of emotion displayed within the covers.  However, this is a short story collection I can see myself returning to, and re-reading.

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