David Malouf is best known in his native Australia as a novelist and a poet. His novel Remembering Babylon was short-listed for England’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1993, and in 1996 he won the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, perhaps the most lucrative literary prize in the world. In these eight tales and one long novelistic story he demonstrates the poet’s fascination with the short story, which has always been the most lyrical of prose forms.
Several common denominators link the stories, the two most predominant being the primitive nature of the Australian landscape and the equally primitive nature of dreams. Two additional linking devices are the frequent use of children who undergo a rite of passage or who embody the primitive site of human desire and secrecy, and the frequent theme of “nothing ever gets lost,” which suggests the writer’s obsession with the past—both personal and primitive.
“At Schindler’s,” the first piece in the collection, is a relatively conventional coming-of-age story about a boy named Jack whose father is missing in action, probably during World War II, although Malouf is not interested in the historical or social context of the war. As his mother begins to lose hope and to date other men, the boy feels that it is up to him to keep his father alive. His efforts become more difficult with the arrival of Milt, a twenty-two-year-old Air Force navigator from Connecticut, who wins over not only the mother but the boy also.
The central thematic metaphor of the story derives from Milt’s interest in paleontology. When Jack asks him how one figures out the past from the few bones one may find, Milt says there are certain laws; “We don’t get this way by accident.” The human body, he says, is put together like sentences; it has a grammar, a syntax, so that with one bit a person can work out the rest, resurrect it by logic and by hunches. He adds that one has to think oneself inside the bones in order to understand the whole from the remaining parts. This is a key to all the stories in the collection, for it embodies the central means by which writers identify with their characters and then, in a formally logical process, create their complex human reality.
The climactic moment of realization in “At Schindler’s” is prefaced by a dream in which Jack climbs to a high water slide on the beach and jumps himself awake to get down. Imagining himself a child of six, he stumbles, half-asleep, to his parents’ room. When he sees two figures fiercely engaged on the bed, he thinks his mother has found a way to summon his father in the night. Realizing it is Milt, the boy is shocked to see in a flash of lightning his father standing on the other side of the bed—only to realize in a conventional epiphany of recognition that it is not a ghost, but himself, fantastically elongated in a mirror. In the morning he goes out and wanders about on the storm-ravaged beach, facing the fact that his father will not come back and that he has crossed over some dreamlike divide from boy to man.
In “Closer,” another one of the childhood stories, Amy is the child of a family of Pentecostals, who believe that everything in the Bible is the absolute truth. The story turns on the topical issue of religious intolerance of homosexuality, for Amy’s uncle Charles, who lives in Sydney and comes only at Easter and Christmas to eat at her grandmother’s house, is gay. The innocent voice of the story is that of the girl, who understands only that Uncle Charles cannot visit because her grandfather says he lives in Sodom and has practiced abominations. To her, the uncle arrives in a car like a spaceship from another world, with his bleached hair and his tanned body and the whitest teeth she has ever seen. When he gets out of the car, seeing his bare-chested body with a golden sheen to it, she says his corruption is invisible, a fire under his clothes and inside him.
However, the grandfather will not allow his son to come in the house and no one goes out to meet him; he paces up and down by his car, sometimes shouting to the house, until he finally gets back in and drives away. The tension in the story is between the child’s innocent parroting of the Pentecostal doctrine of innate sin and her confusion about the way her uncle is treated; to her, it seems harder than anyone can bear to have him stand on one side of a fence with the family on the other, as if he is already dead. She cannot believe that death is stronger than love. The dream motif, which occurs in all of the stories in this book, occurs at the end when Amy dreams that Uncle Charles comes and has taken off all his clothes. Although she knows it is a dream, she believes that dreams can be...