I’ve had a few half-written posts hanging around for awhile, but the combination of being a bit brain-dead and wanting to spend time out in the sun instead of hidden behind a computer has meant that nothing has really eventuated. I don’t like to push myself to write about books when I’m not entirely focussed on it because I think it’s really unfair to the writer — writing a book is so all-consuming and focussed and emotional, I would hate to then post a half-arsed response to it. So I took a little break, read some short stories, hung out with friends in the sun, went to Womadelaide, spent time with my family.
Now I’m back in Melbourne and feels like time to get down to business. The weather has switched from the last days of summer to the start of autumn. I’m not happy about it, but it feels inevitable, like the weather is telling me it’s time to get back to work and back on track. Being in Adelaide was amazing and healing in so many ways, but my friends and career are here. Part of getting back on track and looking after myself has to be reestablishing myself here in Melbourne. There’s so much to love about this city (except the weather) and so much to look forward to. There will always be things that I miss about Adelaide, and there will always be things that I struggle with about Melbourne. But although Adelaide will always be home, Melbourne is my home-base, and I’m lucky to live surrounded by amazing friends and excellent coffee and wonderful bookshops. There’s a lot that feels pretentious about this city, but I will also never shake the feeling that anything feels possible here. And this is the feeling is what I’m trying to hold on to, in my work, in my writing, in my life. So in my first few days back in Melbourne while the sun was still shining I rode my bike and drank iced lattes in the shade and picked up my mail which included an incredible little stack of new books. While I was still feeling a bit floaty and discombobulated I was thrilled to have this collection of short stories to dive in and out of.
I must confess I’ve never read Elizabeth Harrower before. Perhaps it’s that I was never exposed to enough great Australian women writers, or maybe it’s because I’m always too focused on the next big release than to take the time to look back at where it’s come from. But perhaps this is the most wonderful thing about Elizabeth Harrower’s short story collection A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories being shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize — it celebrates Harrower as a contemporary writer but also brings her to a new audience of readers otherwise unfamiliar with her work.
The stories span the 1960’s and 1970’s — some are published for the first time in this collection, many have been pulled from Harrower’s archives. Like Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South they deal with a gritty inner Sydney that feels familiarly Australian, yet another world away from my life in suburban Adelaide to the inner-suburbs of Melbourne. However I particularly enjoyed the story ‘The North Sea’ about a character reconnecting with their home, something that feels very common to the Australian experience of migration, and one that felt perfectly timed to read as I moved from one home back to another. But more than setting, what ties the stories in this collection together are the central characters: these are stories about women, and about the tensions between them and the men in their lives. From youthful innocence in ‘The City at Night’:
The strange silent world of adolescence had exploded, the eggshell walls had collapsed, proclaiming, You are not alone. Eyes alight, cheeks flushed, voices bubbling: the questions and answers flew.
To a grief for our former, younger selves in ‘The Cost of Things’:
She hadn’t altered her hairstyle since they were married. She still chose dresses that would have suited her when she was twenty and wore size ten. Her face was bare of make-up except for a rim of lipstick around the edge of her mouth. And there was something in the total of all this indifference that amounted to a crime.
I really enjoyed this collection. It’s not complicated or technical or brash and that’s why I loved it — Harrower leaves room for the reader to form their own opinion of the characters, to imagine the details of their surrounds, to question their motives. The stories are well-rounded and always feel complete despite the fact that not all have a definitive conclusion. They are polished pieces with clear narratives, perfect for dipping in and out of the book for a story or two at a time, or for spending a lazy day slowly devouring them all as I did. As Lauren Strickland writes for Lip Mag:
That Harrower has, up until recently, been denied a place in the Australian literary canon, is a tragedy – one that can only be remedied by reading her. A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories is a fantastic place to start.
Just as I wanted to dip in and out of short stories, lately I’ve found myself eating small morsels rather than big meals. Partly this has been the hot weather, partly this was because I’d been working nights in Adelaide and therefore eating irregularly, but also it’s because this is how I most love to eat — lots of little bites that can be slowly grazed over. Lately I’ve been eating plates of raw vegetables with hummus and olives — something I used to eat a lot of at Turkish, Lebanese and Israeli cafes in Berlin — or crackers piled with raw vegetables and herbs and topped with cheddar cheese. Meals that can be eaten on the couch while watching TV, at the kitchen table while chatting with friends, or while sprawled out on top of the bed reading. I’ve been day-dreaming a lot about cooking in my future apartment, of spending my Sunday afternoons making hummus from scratch rather than buying it from the supermarket, or of making chunky pestos or chutneys to eat with cheese. While I’m working a lot to save and staying with friends, the store bought stuff will need to do. But one dish that I can easily make from scratch without much effort at all is this Breakfast Salad.
Based on this original recipe from Molly Yeh and my friend Alex’s enthusiasm for playing around with it, this was just the thing for a Friday morning breakfast when I wasn’t in a rush and needed to cheer myself up by forgetting about the grey skies outside. A big smear of thick greek yoghurt, two very soft boiled eggs, some slices of cucumber and some finely chopped coriander, mint and chilli. So easy. I wish I could eat pita bread as it would be the perfect thing to mop up all that gooeyness with, but cucumber (and then some gluten free bread) is still tasty. I didn’t have zaatar or many spices, but I did have some herbs so I used them instead. Lately I’ve been using soft-boiled eggs instead of playing ‘are these eggs still fresh enough to poach’ roulette and as long as you have the eggs running under cold water quickly enough they’ll still be runny enough to get the same feeling of poached eggs, without the fuss. In the next month my schedule will be all over the place and therefore my brain probably will be too. But I’m determined to make time for reading and for lazy breakfasts when I can. These Breakfast Salads are likely to become a staple in my life and I can’t wait to play around with them depending on my mood, the weather, and what’s in the fridge.
After reading A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories I will certainly be seeking out Harrower’s novels, particularly her best-known work The Watchtower. Late last year Alice Cottrell from Text Publishing posted this reflection on her year of reading Australian classics. As someone who feels like they have huge gaps of knowledge in Australian work, particularly by women, I loved this idea. I’ve long looked at the Amy Witting novels on my Mum’s bookshelf but never actually picked one up. I’d love to push myself to read books like I is for Isobel, The Women in Black and The Watchtower. Too often I get caught up in reading what’s next without giving time to read what came before it, and to pause on how much of what was written in the past remains relevant today.