Peering into the Lives of Others: The Life You Chose and That Chose You: The 25th UTS Writers’ Anthology
The talent pool at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is clearly impressive – a student editorial committee has chosen from more than 300 submissions to deliver a tight and scorchingly successful collection of just 35 short stories, poems, and script-writing and non-fiction pieces. No doubt the final decision was excruciating, but apart from just two contrived stories, the offering is highly thought provoking and a teaser of great things to come from the writers represented here.
Managing editor of the New Yorker, Amelia Lester, kicks off the anthology with a concise foreword that wraps up the collection’s overarching themes in a neat bundle and hands them over to the reader: ‘lives are created through a series of choices. Stories are too, and the writers here have made daring and fascinating ones.’
And that is exactly the commonality of all these stories. Despite their myriad differences in tone, subject matter and style, they all deal with the consequences of the choices we make and the way we react to circumstances that are thrust upon us. ‘With a Little Help from Your Friends’ by Benjamin Freeman addresses a teenager’s response to his best friend’s heart-wrenching discovery that he is seriously ill, while the protagonist in Angus Benson’s ‘Down South’ has to come to grips with his own decision to move into adulthood and break away from his childhood friends.
The book is divided into two sections entitled ‘The Life you Chose’ and ‘And That Chose You’. The section title are self-explanatory, but some works encourage us to think more deeply about why the editors have chosen to include it in one section over the other. Sharon Kent’s ‘Jumping for Chicken’, where a 53-year-old crocodile hunter runs away from the responsibility of raising a child is placed in the latter section; while the reader may disagree with his decision, his profession has a strong pull on him that he’s helpless to fight.
A tinge of desperation and sadness hangs over a number of the tales. Many characters regret the decisions they have made. In ‘Odds’ by Rosie Cintio, Chelsea Hammond is left abandoned by the married man she had an affair with, while Louisa in Mathilde de Hautecloque’s ‘Close’ is trapped in the suburbs with just her four year old to keep her company during the day. She begins watching her neighbour, hoping he’ll reach out to her for company.
‘Close’s’ subject matter is achingly familiar. The language is exquisite in this portrait of highly identifiable domesticity: ‘I dragged one of Lenny’s singlets from the basket, flecked by torn tissue, shook it fiercely until drifts of paper snow fell on what was left of the lawn.’ De Hautecloque is skilled at tapping into the melancholy and the allure of the everyday.
The poetry too is flawless in its examination of common fears and insecurities. Georgia Symons hefts us back into adolescence with ‘Mollycoddled’. With her wonderful and sparse use of teenage vernacular she conjures up a party, barges into the minds of the attendees and shakes out all their hopes and anxieties. Anna Nordstroem’s description of blood in ‘On Tuesday Morning’ invokes the black dread of a doctor’s visit:
In the vial it’s almost black,
like lipstick on beautiful women
in black and white photographs,
than my mother’s eyelashes
than the red wine in my glass
than my hair at fifteen
than the back of my eyelids
when I fainted this morning.
The poem’s sparseness is its strength – Nordstroem’s use of language tells us reams about her character, who is slightly detached, yet bordering on the hysterical.
The anthology does contain a couple of misses. ‘The Anniversary’ by Deborah Fitzgerald, about the fresh and raw pain of death, contains an unrealistic twist and the writing is laborious. ‘Bend in the River’ by Roslyn McFarland is about a playwright who confessed to a murder he didn’t commit. McFarland succeeds at making her protagonist unlikeable and self-indulgent but the other characters, especially the two policemen, are clichéd.
But on the whole, the ability of the various writers to access the routines, sufferings and hilarity of ordinary life is what makes this collection so successful. The anthology runs the whole gamut of emotions, from the darkly comic (‘Things That Remind Me Of You’ by Rebecca Slater tells how a woman disposes of her ex-boyfriend’s dead cat), to the sad and confronting (racial hatred in Annabel Stafford’s ‘The Mob Can’t Hurt You’). Each story challenges us to think about the inner worlds of others, and some of the best ones cause an imagination explosion, such are their evocative endings. Discrimination, illness, death, break-ups, success and popularity – the authors dissect the trials and tribulations of the everyday with aplomb.
The prose is skilfully rendered, the poetry original and evocative, and the non-fiction fascinating. The collection is a fantastic snapshot of the talent on offer at UTS.
Amy Roil is a book fiend who loves to write. Check out her blog here: www.bookwitch1.blogspot.com.