Melancholy tales of loss and gain: Inherited by Amanda Curtin

UWA Publishing
November 2011 (paperback, browser-based ebook)

A version of this review was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Spectrum magazine on the weekend of 7-8 January.

In Amanda Curtin’s atmospheric debut novel The Sinkings, as in her new collection, the past seeps into the present. In Inherited, each stunning story contains multiple layers of meaning.

Curtin has been a professional editor for more than 20 years and not a word is wasted in these stories: they surprise, delight and move the reader. Each opening line is inventive, compelling; each conclusion satisfies. The narratives are tightly woven, with mystery in all the right places. The stories are also subtly unified. Different species of plants and birds populate them, hinting at something precious and lasting outside the human drama. And there is that respect for history: its visible and invisible effects and its seductive quality. In ‘Renovation’, someone inspects a house they are buying – its stains, its outer buildings – and, at the same time, the reader gets a glimpse of the house at different times in history. These reflections are partly about loss but they’re also about what is gained by this knowledge, and acknowledgement, of the past.

‘On a blue morning, she turns violet. For all the good it does.’ These are the irresistible opening lines of ‘Paris Bled into the Indian Ocean’. The woman of this story is heartbroken. The coloured sand she finds on the beach seeps into her skin. A sub-story is then recalled about impressionist painter Kathleen O’Connor: when she returned from Paris to Fremantle, instead of paying the duty on all of her paintings, she threw many of them into the Indian Ocean. There is an aesthetic link between past and present – colour bleeding into the ocean, soaking into skin. But as with all the stories, there are more subtle movements. The colours recall memories of the protagonist’s relationship. She is holding on, trying to figure out what went wrong. There are links between her and the artist – women who are beginning over. The closing paragraphs are both aesthetically and emotionally vivid, joyfully so.

While there is joy, the bulk of these stories are exquisitely melancholic. Curtin has divided them up into seven sections: Keeping, Wanting, Surviving, Remembering, Breaking, Leaving and Returning. In ‘Hamburger Moon’ the protagonist, Alice, has fooled the clinic and her family into believing she has beaten her bulimia. The author somehow gets the reader on side with the illness.

‘The Prospect of Grace’ links different suicides in history, and hints at the effects on people left behind.

In one of the strongest stories in the collection, ‘Dove’, a woman is ‘treated’ to a holiday by her children. It is in an unstated place – possibly Bali or Thailand – and the woman attempts to relax but is distracted by possible perceptions of herself and other Western tourists. She is dismayed by the selection of music her driver offers her: Neil Diamond, Michael Buble. She thinks: ‘My God. It’s come to this. This is what she looks like through other people’s eyes.’ She is reading The Slap on holiday but often leaves it in her room as she cannot find kindness in it, or compassion. This story could just be about Westernness, or ageing, but it’s so much more. The protagonist wonders about being a good person: ‘Maybe being a good person is just a shallow, middle-class concept as meaningless as Tupperware.’ All the while, in her empty house, a dove is trapped, panicked and dying.

There are real threats, there are ones we imagine, and ones we inherit. This book acknowledges our need to want and keep, to survive and remember, to return; and the inevitability of our breaking and leaving. It is graceful and compelling.

This review will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

14 thoughts on “Melancholy tales of loss and gain: Inherited by Amanda Curtin

  1. Another blog post I’ll have to pass over ’til later. I bought my copy of “Inherited” last week, but I’m still waiting to start it. Both it and my copy of “The Well” have started getting together and whispering rude things about what a slack reader I am 🙂

    • Definitely no spoilers here, Glen! But I understand. You like to come to the work ‘fresh’. Enjoy it. I’m sure you will.

  2. Inherited by Amanda Curtin is one of best collection of short stories I’ve ever read. Curtin is up there with Annie Proulx’s and Alice Munroe and many other great short story writers.

    So thrilled to read your review as Inherited deserves as many accolades as can be heaped upon it.
    p.s. Yes, I thought Dove was just brilliant.

  3. Thanks for this, Angela. I’ve been meaning to check out more contemporary Australian women writers, and on the strength of your review I’m going to take a look at this!

  4. I don’t read a lot of short stories but this collection sounds intriguing. Thanks for sharing your review

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

  5. Pingback: The Sinkings, by Amanda Curtin « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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