Verandah People

by Jonathan Bennett
ISBN: 1551926490

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A Review of: Verandah People
by Lyall Bush

The best short story writers curve their art around suggestion. The plume of smoke runs in two directions, too-back down the chimney into the troubled house, and drifting up into the blue erasure of the sky. Length can vex the balance: longer tales gravitate to the moral density of the novel, whose scale demands more than than wispy suggestion; shorter stories shrink into anecdote or haiku, only rarely finding the controlled angina of a Beatles song. (I'm thinking of "Eleanor Rigby".) The great writers of the short story, from Poe to Chekhov to Joyce and Borges, thread character, scene, scenario and desire onto a few social facts and fabricate work with the lustre of a blueprint: imaginative fruition that still points to a world elsewhere. Joyce's stories of decision and delusion in Dublin imagine an Ireland with a dire, dying glow. Edgar Allen Poe's tales of the uncanny and of furious detection show us how the Old World's ghosts are re-purposed in the gloaming forests of the New.
Writers who don't account for this thistledown tend to tell stories without much valence, as people in English departments used to say in the '80s. Jonathan Bennet's and Joanne Soper-Cook's new collections of stories, different as they are from one another, share this echo problem. Both are able writers, but neither gathers together a narrative with any of the ambition of, say, Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog", which begins as a story of self-absorbed travellers having an affair and only gradually takes on nuance and movement, to the point that the fear that Chekhov captures on the last page is exquisite. A few scattered sentences about the sea, about steam blowing out of a Moscow dining club, convey the wrenching feeling of ice and despair inside a life-changing decision. These moments, and a certain drifting movement, are the story's genius.
Reading the twelve stories in Jonathan Bennett's Verandah People, I wanted Chekhov's restless eye to tease this something else into the sentences. Beginning with the best story in the collection, "Verandah People", Bennett, a native Australian who makes his home now in Port Hope, Ontario, appears to be heading there. Drift and death are his main subject matter: in this first story we watch the series of unscheduled stops that Marcus, a house-painter separated from his wife and son, makes in the day or so before ending own life. Having had his child taken from him Marcus takes all that he has left in a sort of unspoken recompense. And he does it with a macabre flair, nailing one hand to a gum tree on a hill overlooking the very project he is to start the next day-repainting the verandah of an older woman.
The Christ motif carries to "Groping Head", which tells the strange account of an older woman's death some years later. We know it's the same woman because her name is Mavis and because the look of her verandah, facing a hill of gum trees, was established in "Verandah People". I liked that, particularly that the connection is slight, a kind of random fender bender about which the author makes nothing. In this second story, Mavis dies naturally, but in her request to be buried on top of the hill she complicates things for her family. There is a bureaucratic hurdle about private cemeteries to overcome and a permit arrives just a day before the burial is scheduled. As a result, night falls before the men have finished digging the plot. They walk back down the hill for the night, leaving the coffin untended. When the narrator, Mavis's nephew, returns in the morning it is mysteriously empty, and in a panic he fills it with his aunt's notebooks to give it weight, telling no one. A few days later the ghost of his aunt Mavis appears to him, looking young, full-figured, tanned, and laughing.
Other stories sit with the unsettled feeling, or they descend into horror: one follows brothers as they go on a racially motivated attack on a Native family; another tells of a teenager being mangled in the surf by a shark while his brother looks on. We watch a red-haired girl drown in a swimming pool, and we see how an older, childless couple live out their lives of regret. Some of the characters link across stories in the slight, glancing way that the characters in the first story do. All are brief and shaped as mysteries that the narrators have no interest in explaining.
The title comes from the first story where the verandah forms some rhetorical punctuation:

"In the painting he'd seen at Mavis's, the thing missing, the part that should have been included, was a person. Maybe two people. Such a sunny day and such a colourful garden. Why did the artist stay inside but paint the outside? A verandah is outside. But it's a shelter, kind of half in, half out. So it wasn't a painting of the garden, it was a painting of the verandah."

The house painter's art school background accounts for the inward gaze, a world elsewhere that cues us to other rough transitions between worlds. It's a nice figure, but then verandahs start popping up in all 12 stories, and often distractingly, and with an increasingly mechanical entry. The first verandah makes sense-painter, eye, life-decision. After that the verandahs become clever intrusions where they could be nodes quickening thoughts could attach to. Bennett's own eye is one of his strengths and I imagine that one day he will reach beyond the stoic fatalists he writes about in this collection, and to better effect.

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