It’s been a year for great short story collections from Australian writers, and after reading When There’s Nowhere Else To Run after I first arrived here, Six Bedrooms was perfect for the same reason I loved Murray Middleton’s collection — it gave me a little window back into suburban Australian life. But more than that, Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection also gave me the raw discomfort of some of Abigail Ulmann’s stories in Hot Little Hands, bringing out the pain, humiliations and vulnerability of being a young woman.
The early stories in this collection tell of the mess of childhood — the glancing looks that are examined for hours afterwards, the fear of checking your skirt for blood on the school oval. While I enjoyed these early stories, they did not grab me in the way that the latter stories would. As the collection moves chronologically by the age of the narrators, we’re then taken out of the school yard and into the early twenties — stories of travel, university, teenage friendships and first share houses. In ‘Trouble’ Bennett Daylight perfectly captures the arrival of a young Australian to London. Those raw feelings and sense of being foreign, exhausted by the desire to create a new version of yourself yet still as vulnerable as ever to old injuries. And of course, having to adjust to the weather:
‘If it rains again tomorrow,’ said Karen, ‘I’m going to kill everyone in London with an axe.’
‘You’ll be tired,’ I said, staring through the rain-streaked window at the crowds forcing their along the pavement.
In the title-story ‘Six Bedrooms’, we follow teenage friendship and first share-houses, the boundless energy and desire to explore, the feeling that anything may be possible:
In those days lack of sleep was something different. It was like the dirt and get in my hair. It built up; it made a shape out of my personality. I didn’t feel tired, I just felt different. I laughed very easily, and cried also.
But the story also captures the early shocks of the real world and the determination to shake them off as soon as possible, yet the undeniable pain of being caught off guard by others’ failings.
I couldn’t explain to Evie, when she wrote to me asking why we were not friends anymore, that I was still trying to lose the old self, to become someone a little faster, a little smoother than everyone else. Or at least someone who could keep up.
In ‘J’aime Rose’ there are first relationships, the cruelty of teenage years in all it’s fucked-up-ness and the small-minded world of the school yard. And in ‘Together alone’ all the pain and fear of being an adult, of feeling independent but completely alone. These last two stories in particular really grabbed my attention and left me aching for the protagonists. But they also give perfect examples of Bennett Daylight’s voice, which at every stage gives honour and strength to her central characters, while never painting them as overly naive or older than their years. From ‘J’aime Rose’:
I wasn’t quite a misfit. I didn’t have the courage for that. … In this part of my life I was watching, and waiting. I was waiting to be transformed. I would be nobody until someone chose me.
Quietness is something that has pervaded my time here in Berlin. There is the obvious language gap — the feelings I cannot yet express in German, the frustration at not being able to make myself heard as I can in English — that makes me feel like a young girl all over again. And there is the distance between myself and my home — my native voices, language quirks and accents — that mean that even when I do speak English here often there requires interpretation of slang, or speaking a simplified slower version of English in order to accommodate the fact that English is often someone’s second or third language. But there is also a quietness to my everyday — I no longer so easily switch on the radio for background noise as I did in Melbourne, or talk so freely with staff at cafes, or eavesdrop into others’ conversations on the tram. Sometimes this adds to the feelings of loneliness and isolation, but sometimes it is also a blessing. Without the added noise running through my head there is time for self-reflection, but also for imagination. Not knowing a particular word in German forces me to try to work it out through context and body language. Not being able to talk easily with the cafe staff or the person sitting next to me means I often find myself making up little stories about their lives while I drink my tea.
And having less words to work with in German makes English feel lush and full of possibilities — it makes expressing myself in my native language feel joyful. All of this is great for my writing, but also makes reading in English a richer and (even) more pleasurable experience. Because in Berlin I am often moving as a shadow, trying to complete everyday tasks without being noticed or failing at language or cultural differences; but on the page my inner world comes alive in a way that I haven’t felt since childhood. Which is why reading Six Bedrooms now was such perfect timing. In Bennett Daylight’s vulnerable girls and women I see the same teenager in Adelaide trying to work out who she was and how to express herself through words, actions, clothes, language and music; and the same twenty-year-old in London trying to find her way in a place that felt equally foreign and like home; and the same mid-twenties-early-thirties woman that forged her place in Melbourne and finally began to feel comfortable in her own skin. Those voices, that language, those feelings of vulnerability, excitement, pain and fatigue never leave us no matter how old we are or where we find ourselves. By capturing the voice of young women in this collection of stories, Bennett Daylight reminds us that we are never far from our past, yet, crucially, she also reminds us that no matter how quiet or loud the world around us may be, we are never alone.
Now that winter is here in full swing in Berlin, the dark days and cold nights are made a little easier by the inclusion of Glühwein (mulled wine). Being Germany, Glühwein comes ready-made in bottles at the supermarket for 2 or 3 euros (between $3-5 Australian per litre), though this recipe from Jamie Oliver looks close to what we drink here and easy to prepare. It is drunk everywhere you turn at the Weihnachtsmarkten (Christmas Markets) and is perfect with Gebrannte Nuss (spiced sugary nuts) that come in little paper cones while still warm, though they are often so sugary you may end up bringing some home with you (or make your own using this recipe on food.com). We also drank quite a lot of Glühwein on a recent weekend away with friends. It was the perfect drink to keep us warm and rosy and fuel long-awaited conversations about our respective lives away from Melbourne. But while I may be a long way from home and won’t have a Christmas by the beach eating seafood this year, enjoying the beauty and warmth of an indoor Christmas in Germany is certainly one way to stave off the homesickness a little.
‘Sometimes we are left with invisible marks that alter the way we see ourselves. What did he really offer me? A lesson, I suppose: What a woman wears can be used as a weapon against her. The uninvited gaze, the way it insinuates. The words that came so much later, equally unwelcome, equally insinuating, making me doubt my abilities and self-worth. Our lives are the culmination of these little moments. They add up to give us a picture of the world and the people in it.’ Bonnie Tsui writes beautifully on the ugliness of the male-gaze for The New York Times in ‘The Undress Code’.