Svetlana or Otherwise – Tiggy Johnson

Mockingbird, 2007, 9781740274616

Svetlana or Otherwise is a collection of small explorations. Tiggy Johnson constructs a story well, often ending with a surprise. Most of the stories revolve around a character in a family situation; some deal with memory; all of them touch on the ephemeral, as the best literature usually does. Some are in the voice of a child, and Johnson does well to get under their skin. In ‘Mason’s Shed’, for example, two boys play a trick on a grumpy old man. The build-up of guilt for one of the boys is the focus of the story. The voice is strong, and the ending surprising.

‘Svetlana’ is quite a different story, and one of the strongest. It is told from the ‘author’s’ point-of-view trying to construct a story around Chernobyl. Whose voice will she tell it in, and why? Amongst this narrative we have the story itself, from experimented angles, no less moving despite our awareness of its construction. The reader can relate to the author’s dilemma at expressing meaning through character; the power that can be used or abused in constructing an horrific historical event; the need to tell the stories of affected individuals; and the difficulty of getting it right.

Some stories are playful, such as ‘Labels’ – labels on a bottle, labels of people – with clever lines such as ‘How long did I think I could keep the park bench company anyway, now winter had finally made a statement?’ Here, the character is sitting across the road from their house, after having come home early from a business trip only to find two glasses in the sink…

‘Sand Between My Toes’ is moments of a first relationship with hints of violence. It is subtle and beautifully constructed.

The range here is interesting. Some stories, like ‘Possum’ felt written for a magazine-type market, twisted and surprising, with great sense descriptions, but overall not full of substance. These are rarer, though, than the stories of depth and cleverness. There are plenty of a domestic bent. Johnson has a fine grasp of the form in both a commercial and artistic sense. I think there would be stories in here that almost everyone would enjoy and relate to. I really enjoyed Svetlana or Otherwise, but would love to see a collection perhaps a little more thematically consistent further down the track. Johnson’s fine grasp of different voices would also work well for a novel told through different points of view.

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