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Sometimes, the ties that bind are sharp enough to cut. In these eleven stories, set in contemporary Australian suburbia, Deborah Sheldon examines the darker side of family relationships. Unsettling and incisively written, each story of betrayal, envy, loss or bad blood resonates for a long time after reading.
REVIEW : WHISPERING GUMS / AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S WRITERS CHALLENGE
What I found particularly interesting about Deborah Sheldon’s short story collection, 300 degree days & other stories, is that the stories deal almost exclusively with a particular type of family relationship, the one to do with children, parents and, sometimes, grandparents. I’m not sure I’ve read a short story collection before that has been quite so tightly focused, but that’s not to say that it is boring. Far from it, because Sheldon explores these relationships from multiple, and sometimes surprising, angles.
There are eleven stories in the collection, most told from a third person point of view. They vary in length from two or three pages to eight or so. This produces an effective change in pace which nicely counteracts the impact of a similarity in tone across the stories, a tone which tends to be on the melancholic end of the mood meter. This tone is not unusual in short stories about families and relationships because writers are, not surprisingly, most often drawn to the challenges people face. Sheldon certainly was. Many of her stories deal with fractured relationships in which resolution seems unlikely or with relationships in which there is a sadness – such as childlessness in “Closed for Renovations”, or the after-effects of illness in “Bull Rider”, or ageing in “Thy Way, O God, is in the Sanctuary” – that tests deeply loving relationships.
Sheldon has the ability to make you sit up with her insight. “First and Last Words” is a devastating, tight little vignette about a single mother giving birth. And the other tiny story, “Little Yellow Hat”, contains a shocking – almost unbelievable – display of lack of compassion from those who should know better, leaving the young people gasping for air. The title story, “300 Degree Days”, is the longest, and explores a first-time pregnant woman’s fears, her lack of confidence in facing the change coming, even though she knew “she was a good worker and a good wife”. There’s nothing to suggest that she won’t be a good mother, but emotions run high in late pregnancy and Sheldon captures this nicely through a very Australian image, a plague of blowflies!
Sheldon’s language is clear and direct. She has, I understand from her website, written scripts and plays, which suggests that she’s not likely to over-indulge in description – and she doesn’t, but neither does she overdo the dialogue. It’s just that there’s little that’s wasted here. She uses imagery sparsely, but effectively. I’ll give just one example of her writing. It comes from her story, “The Birthday Present”, in which a mother takes her son to visit his cranky, unwelcoming grandfather on the grandfather’s birthday:
‘Josh, go on, he won’t hurt you,’ she said.
But the kid didn’t look too sure. He advanced across the rug, brandishing the present as if it were a shovel and Don was a tiger snake coiled in the shade. Don flung out an arm and gestured hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, but the kid faltered and stalled in the middle of the rug.
Not all the stories are hopeless, as I may have implied, and this is where order in the collection plays an important role. In “Bull Rider”, the opening story, the love and care are palpable as the son puts himself out for his frail mother. He finds her relaxed attitude to risk mystifying, given the risk-averse way she’d raised him. It’s not for nothing that his job involves “contributing to the financial security of the country”. The already mentioned “300 Degree Days” occurs in the middle of the collection, and then couple of stories later is “Closed for Renovations” about a couple forced to accept childlessness. Their sadness, particularly the wife’s, pervades the story. Their love is strong but will the husband cope with her grief? And then there is the last story which departs dramatically from the preceding ten, in that parents and children don’t feature, although a grown-up brother does. It is about a sixty-something gay man facing life after prostate cancer. It is a warm story about uncertainty and fear of loneliness, but ends on a note of hope, which makes it a perfect conclusion for the collection.
I enjoyed 300 degree days for its authentic portrayal of how people behave and respond to challenges in their relationships. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real, and that made it a winner for me.