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Book Review: Inherited by Amanda Curtin

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I keep coming across articles heralding the return of the short story. From a literary journal perspective, short fiction has always been in vogue. There are many reasons for this. Short stories are perfect for time-starved attention spans, easy to read and fast to engage in stolen moments between appointments. Most of all, however, the short story is concentrated. As a reader, you get a full novelistic experience in a succinct bite. Amanda Curtin’s stories in Inherited are perfect examples of this. They’re intense, self-contained, and rich. The characters draw you into their tales of grief, their loss, and their desire, leaving you hungry for more, but also, strangely, sated. Death pervades the book, working simultaneously as setting, character and conflict. Death is everywhere, underlying the action, motivating the living, and drawing the action forward towards the inevitable denouement, and yet, as the protagonist Paige in “Live Forever” finds, “without loss, there can be no value.” It’s the ever-present presence of death that gives meaning to life.

There’s not a single story in this collection that doesn’t take the reader to the edge of experience: tragedy, loss, fear, loneliness. Many of the stories brought me to tears, but despite the darkness, this is not a depressing collection. Instead, at the heart of every story, is a sense of what remains when we’re stripped clean. Each story is populated with memory, artifact, and a tiny bit of magic – a little hint at immortality that pervades the spaces these characters live or have lived in. This might be the memory of superb gracefulness: what it’s like to “dance a story,” or it might be a few trinkets: “a tortoiseshell comb, a pipe, the handle of a frying pan.” The senses are in full play as we border on the indelicacy of extreme taste and distorted hunger in “Hamburger Moon.” The “sight sense” is prevalent as flaking uneven patchwork plastering gives rise to the memory of a lost cow, or paintings thrown into the Indian Ocean become a conduit to the healing of grief in “Paris Bled Into the Indian Ocean”:

“Hundreds of colours, thousands of them, perhaps — some newly exposed in the slick-wet sand, others uncovered from some hidden core as the wind scours dry ripples — each seam the touch of a brush, a figment of tree, of flower, a hat, a picnic, a fountain, a chair, and easel. Raviissant.”

We experience touch in the horrible flint-sharp boulders against skin in “Rush, and sound in “The Sound of a Room”:

He gazed up, around, taking in the dimensions, and put his ear to the plasterboard wall. He walked the room’s perimeter, judging ratios, gauging the shifts in ambience from door to wall, from corner to corner. He stood on a reclining chair beneath moulded cornices, hearing the air curve. Listening intently, trying to isolate each aural particularity, he bemoaned the fact that his spectrum analyser was not, for once, in the boot of the car. This space — it was a gem. (58)

Memory is critical in each of the stories, recycled into new experiences, and reworked into new memories, twisting, in and out of view, but never lost — nothing is ever lost. The setting brings history into the present day as modern characters uncover clues about the past that lead to self-awareness. In “The Prospect of Grace,” Charles Yelverton O’Connor’s widow Susan Letitia might not have achieved the fame of her husband but, despite her pain, the tears that “dissolved onto the black taffeta — stained sand, and were borne elsewhere by the tidal breathing of spirit children,” she stood and survived. All of these stories are about the grace and inherent value of survival, even in the face of tremendous loss.

In “Cradle of Shadows,” a woman tries to understand how her great-grandmother could have drowned her infant born after wartime rape, while she contemplates her own abortive act in a double helix of shame and a loss that unmakes memory: “I remember a house of four generations. There will be no-one to remember me.”

In “Synapses,” a woman struggling with her own advancing age tries to piece together her missing mother through tiny flakes of information that don’t add up to enough — not to “heart, blood pressure, plaques, tangles” — those things that constitute a real life; a history.

In “Custodian,” a granddaughter visits her dying grandmother, trying to link her grandmother’s perception to the person she is.

A mother loses her son and gathers his memories around her in “Gratitute.” She is just another “sadling,” and, like the photographer who narrates the story, we are mere voyeurs to her grief, but the act of remembering brings her boy back into the present.

Not all stories provide answers. Though they aren’t unsatisfying, each story holds back a little, leaving the reader to imagine the rest. The stories stand alone and can be read in isolation, but taken together they form a coherent and powerful whole, connected by the strong themes, and the imagery, of birds, of colour, of art in its many forms, of family, and of course inheritance: not just the things we inherit but the memories, the genes, the vision. Inherited is an exceptional collection of beautiful stories, written with the intense spareness of poetry. Each reading reveals new truths, new twists, and another way of perceiving both the ordinary, and the extraordinary that is everywhere in our not so very short lives.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.