Guest review: Elizabeth Bryer on Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat


How a Moth Becomes a Boat
Josephine Rowe
Hunter Publishers, 2010 (Aus)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bryer

In Meanjin 67:2, 2008, Wayne Macauley describes the painstaking process he underwent in his search for a publisher for his allegorical novel, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, which went on to receive rave reviews and was even picked for the VCE English recommended reading list. In the article he describes self-publishing as ‘the hyphenated horror word that makes most literati reach for their revolvers. Family histories, bad story collections, worse poetry.’

That, certainly, is self-publishing’s reputation. But, Macauley goes on to ask: ‘Why not something else besides? Brilliant poetry by front-line poets, innovative fiction by the best going round, new unclassifiable genres of writing that might reach a whole new readership’.

He advocates a change in structure in Literature Board grants more akin to the Theatre Board’s model, whereby writers, in their grant applications, would outline their marketing strategy, distribution model and costings, and then, if successful, would receive funds to self-publish. Such self-publishing, meanwhile, would lose the usual stigma because it would carry the Literature Board’s (as opposed to a publisher’s) stamp of approval.

A great idea, I thought, but, in the meantime, with such grants still just an idea, surely writers would continue to seek publishers’ endorsement by having their manuscripts do the rounds of all big publishers’ slush piles? Because, I imagined, what good writer would be brave enough to contend with that stigma, to choose to refrain from sending the kind of writing that is ‘brilliant’ and ‘innovative’ to publishers, but rather to self-publish said writing in an act of defiance that could so easily be misinterpreted as the final resort opted for after the writing didn’t manage to pique the gate-keepers’ interest? What good writer would be brave enough to choose to risk that their baby languish in the same category as the ‘family histories, bad story collections, worse poetry’?

As it turns out, my rhetorical question showed itself to be something other than rhetorical because it has an answer: St Kilda-based Josephine Rowe – who has self-published her collections East of Here, Close to Water; Asynchrony and How a Moth Becomes a Boat – she is that gutsy writer I didn’t think existed. In a LiteraryMinded responsive interview, Rowe states: ‘For some reason I have more faith at 3 in the morning. Call it delirium, if you want to. One particular 3 in the morning, I realised that self-publishing was in fact a valid form of publication’.

So, then, we readers have insomnia to thank for her courageous move, which has led to How a Moth Becomes a Boat being commercially re-issued by Hunter, who have done a wonderful job on the gorgeous cover design.

How a Moth Becomes a Boatis a collection of short stories whose innovative, atypical format – the stories are very brief and the collection itself is also much slighter than standard collections – would never, I suspect, have made it off a commercial publisher’s slush pile, and not because it is not of the highest quality. In other words, this book holds between its covers exactly the kind of innovation that Macauley hopes would, if self-published, attract ‘a whole new readership’. It’s up to us, now, to be that readership.

How a Moth Becomes a Boat’s first story lucidly encapsulates the relationship between a daughter and father through detailing his teaching her how to break whisky bottles, should she ever need to defend herself. In just three pages, the oddity of the forms in which love can present itself, and the very incomprehensibility of its guises from the perspective of onlookers, is explored. In a brief moment we see the life the protagonist is living and the life in which she will be caught in the future, and the tentative understandings of children as opposed to adults are perceptively expressed through the daughter’s and father’s different conceptions of what, exactly, constitutes frightening.

This, for me, was the perfect story with which to open the collection because its central motif reflects how the book is structured stylistically: each piece is like one of the first story’s glass fragments, a thing in itself but also, in its very form, something that points towards a greater whole. In the case of each of the stories, we are presented with snatches of lives that tell us so much about the whole, while at the same time existing in themselves as perfectly complete constructions. Thus, we witness a woman deciding to leave her lover the day he ceases pushing his house key under the door for her. We feel the heady rush of a teenage joyride, and the fear of consequence afterwards. We are privy to a woman’s dreams turning mediocre after she falls in love.

The characters are haunted by memory and we often catch them in a moment of decision, or in the contemplation of one. Each story manages to lull you with its magic so that you think you know where it is headed until, with a flick of its tail, it disarms you in its final sentences.

Given its size, it is tempting to read the collection at a single sitting, but this can prove disorienting and doesn’t do the collection justice; instead, may I suggest that these stories be read one at a time at individual sittings. That way, the nuance of each story can be more wholly contemplated and appreciated, since the reader is left with the memory of one story each time, with distinct worlds can be imaginatively inhabited afterwards.

The narrator of ‘Over’ contends, ‘We are a small story, you tell me […] We are a small story, all the more beautiful, all the more poignant, because we know that it will one day be over’.

How a Moth Becomes a Boat’s stories are indeed small, but, like the relationship detailed in ‘Over’, they are all the more exquisite for it.

As for how a moth becomes a boat, you’ll have to read the collection to find out.

elizabethElizabeth Bryer’s writing has appeared in Australian literary journals. She has recently started a blog on reading, writing and translation called Plume of Words

6 thoughts on “Guest review: Elizabeth Bryer on Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat

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