Swirling eddies of emotion and weather bind these short stories from Janette Turner Hospital. Published in 2011, this book won the Steele Rudd Award for Best Collection of Short Stories in 2012. Nine narratives, followed by a memoir of “heartbreaking poignancy, shocking power and steadfast resolve, all grapple with a universal question: how can we maintain equilibrium in a turbulent and uncertain world?”
My recent post on Five Bells explored the possibility of using an icon as stimulus for character development and the slow revelation of detail. Using an icon as a unifying motif had me thinking of Turner Hospital’s book, and how I had previously used one of the stories with an Advanced English class – we were exploring how language features effectively convey character’s thoughts and emotions.
The opening story, ‘Blind Date’ begins
with the depiction of a child, Lachlan, hovering in the background of preparations for his sister’s wedding, and wondering whether their estranged father will appear on the day. Lachlan is blind, but can read footsteps and interpret the vibrations of others’ movements. He remembers his father’s departing hug, and associates it with his freshly laundered shirt, thereafter curling up in the laundry basket for solace, until the scents of bleach and steam and washing powder collide with his father’s retreating words: “I’m drowning, mate, and I just can’t breathe.” Deluge, churning water, small boats in cyclones sensations and images are compressed in the boy’s sorrow as he anticipates both his father’s arrival, and the possibility of his not appearing.
Read the full review by Felicity Plunkett.
Here are some analytical and discussion points for ‘Blind Date’:
- consider the power of the title and the possible connotations. Note when these reference, both implicit and explicit, are made
- opening paragraph: Turner Hospital uses future simple tense to take us into the world of a young boy and show his hopes. Lachlan projects a massive impact through childlike naivety or magic realism: personified rain, and a change in the weather. Also note the mix of sentence lengths
- second paragraph: protagonist shares his faith and ability to ‘reads footsteps’ which sets him apart
- third paragraph: Lachlan’s expectations reiterated through repetition of ‘perhaps’ and memory of father’s farewell with cliche idiom “G’day, mate … Long time, no see.”
- fourth paragraph: detailed description of his father’s voice using sibilance – smoky scratchy sound – and simile – like a train going into a tunnel. Italicised washing machine introduces the motif (or lexical chain) of laundry and cleanliness, a powerful tool in sensual imagery that successfully evokes empathy: “The smell was like baskets of clothing waiting to be ironed and like mounds of sheet … sinking into softness, the smell of clean …”
- the next paragraph is a single sentence: When Lachlan’s father shows up in dreams, he trails washdays.
- sixth paragraph: more details of Lachlan’s ability to identify and recall specifics through an accumulated image of listed laundry products – assonance in ‘furtive urge’ reminds us of his distance from others, while his sense of safety and childhood security is shown in the simile ‘hills of sheet as soft as ice-cream swirls’.
- seventh paragraph: reiterates his father’s voice – a train whistle hesitates – and repetition of farewell comments that compound their importance
- note how dialogue is used to introduce and construct other characters, such as Lachlan’s mother and Pamela, his sister – truncated and literal or unemotional, compared with the poetic language associated with the protagonist
- identify and account for the different references to weather and its effects
- narrative structure: identify and note how we recognise the orientation, complication, rising action and climax – consider the implication for character development and our understanding
- towards the climax, Lachlan relates a number of imagined conversations with his father as if he is daydreaming to make sense of the information about his father’s departure – this represents a shift in his maturity and a fading of the magic realism from the opening paragraphs. Contrast this with the earlier sensual memories and images of his father.