University anthologies are often pedestrian and insular. Even worse, at times they smack of desperation – you can almost wring it from the pages like water from hair. ‘Here is my story,’ each writer seems to say. ‘This is what I did this year.’
Not so the swish publication from the University of Technology in Sydney, titled I can see my house from here. Edited by students of the Creative Writing course, submissions are open to students from all faculties at UTS, and in this case, the hits to misses ratio is commendable. Whether the seven editors (all female – come on Sydney fellas, pull your finger out) were simply lucky with their submissions, or whether there was some heavy groundwork undertaken, we can’t know, but the result is a collection that triumphantly walks a tightrope between variety and quality.
Nam Le provides the foreword, and it’s a bit of a hurdle. Because of his ‘aversion to the typical foreword’ we are presented with a curious piece of writing. It is annoying yet beguiling, and it left me wondering at its motives (other than his ‘aversion’). Simply put, I simultaneously liked it and disliked it, as it raises a couple of noteworthy arguments but diverts attention away from I Can See My House From Here. Only two and a half pages in length, Le uses most of his foreword to examine the raison d’être of anthologies in general, writing in a self-referential style that is a discordant mixture of semi-pertinent questions alongside opinions that are prone to backflip immediately after they’ve been asserted. He bemoans that ‘the typical foreword end[s] up being about its own author, rather than the main text’ and then admits that he has done the exact thing he is grumbling about. He criticises ‘the ritualised calling out to chosen pieces’, only to do just that in a belated and hurried fashion. (It is only in the final paragraph that he actually discusses this specific anthology he is introducing and its contributors.)
I imagine that Le’s short foreword is not what the editors had in mind when they approached him, but I imagine they realise also the value of having Le’s name on the cover. Hey, at least it’s different, even if painstakingly so; I’m still talking about it four paragraphs into my review, which signals something superior to the usual hemmed-in introductions normal of publications such as this.
The thirty-two short fictions are divided into three sections: ‘I can see’, ‘My house’, and ‘From here’. Although I was initially suspicious that this was just a superficial stylistic choice, the stories in each section correspond thematically with their particular banner, and thus the separating succeeds in adding character to the collection.
I’m not sure if it simply took me a while to become immersed in the anthology, but I found the latter two sections to be of higher quality than the first. Rosalie Bartlett’s evocative story ‘The Navel Gazed’ allows us entry into the world of Camille. Shouldering a severe eating disorder and tied to a hospital, Camille is dumbfoundingly real and believable in her awful quest to lose more and more weight. The writing is spot on and doesn’t lose control, even when describing moments like Camille syringing out the liquefied contents from her stomach that she had been force-fed by a hospital nurse. Throughout the story we are there as involuntary voyeurs:
‘She lifted her shirt and hunched over in a ritual, counting the ribs she could see and checking the protruding pelvic bones and the knobby spine that rose along her back like a heckled echidna, making sure they were still there, that she was still accountable for what she refused, rejected and regurgitated, and that she was still, she was sure, a monster, reprehensible for all of this and everything that could ever come of it.’
Tyswan Slater’s ‘Justin’ tells the first person story of another exceptional character: a mute (and presumed disabled by most, but actually fully cognisant) young man living in a care home. His love for his carer is terrible and beautiful; unable to let her know, he almost falls apart when she takes leave to get married. Slater underpins the surface narrative with a softly spoken conundrum: are we ‘better alive and unhappy’, or not?
The other standout is Georgia Symons’ ‘Character’. The most ambitious piece in the anthology with its atypical narrative and air of inscrutability, Symons grants us a few minutes in the life of the girlfriend of a character actor. The premise is original, and tangents other writers would avoid for fear of plot holes are tackled so that they add to, rather than detract from, the intimacy and enjoyable nature of the story.
Two other pieces that have comparable father characters are worthy of mention, both for their simple familiarity and their implicit understanding of domestic relationships. The narrator of Cybele Masterman’s ‘April’ journeys north on a trip with her dad, to collect and cremate the body of his own dad. The writing is clean and strong, with wonderful lines like, ‘Dad’s signature looked like the screen of a heart monitor in a hospital.’ Kelli Lonergan’s ‘Westaway’ has a dad that is just as recognisable, but in an opposite way: stringent and strident, with no room for negotiation. The fresh-out-of-school narrator is thinking of starting a Fine Arts course; the dad’s ‘lips go tight before saying that doing that would get me nowhere.’
Rather than descend into superlative praise, I’d just like to reiterate that I Can See My House From Here justifies its existence with its content. If you like stories, you’ll like this anthology. Maybe for reasons other than mine, but the depth and diversity of the collection means a win for all readers.
Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.