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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Six Bedrooms - Tegan Bennett Daylight - 2016 Stella Prize

Earlier in the week I read a great blog post at “The Writes of Woman” about reviewing books and whether or not you should write negative reviews. The post, plus the review of “Viral” by Helen Fitzgerald can be viewed here

Personally I’ve been struggling with how to write a review of Tegan Bennett Daylight’s “Six Bedrooms”. As I would like to read and review as many entrants on the 2016 Stella Prize Longlist, simply ignoring this collection of short stories is not an ideal approach, so my thoughts follow, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with my views, and that’s fine by me, I’m simply following Naomi’s lead here and “registering my own bias”.

As long term visitors to this blog would know, I’m not a huge fan of “coming of age” fiction, and it takes a pretty special approach to these tales of moving toward adulthood for me to be moved enough to write a glowing review. So first off, a book that is described, on the back cover, thus; “Tegan Bennett Daylight’s powerful collection captures the dangerous, tilting terrain of becoming an adult”, this possibly put me in a certain negative frame of mind before I’d read a page. And when I open this collection of ten short stories….the font is very large, the spacing even larger…I couldn’t help being reminded of Jen Craig’s quote in the another Stella Prize longlisted work, “Panthers and the Museum of Fire”

Every time I pass a bookshop that has the latest releases and the latest promotions of fiction in the window, I am never curious about anything that lies inside the pages whose thick white tongues have been spread just a little so that it is plain for all to see that the type has been spaced too much and the book made thicker and heavier than it might have been, and certainly more than what the book – as it appears to me – has necessarily warranted. All the new novels that are published these days are thicker and heavier that the novels themselves would usually warrant. Each of them is thicker and heavier, by virtue of the fact that the pages are thicker than they should have been and the type spaced further apart than it should have been and the cover made thicker than it should have been in the mistaken belief that the worth of a novel is always only equivalent to its thickness and weight and that the more of it you have when you buy it, the more likely you have bought something worthwhile or at least worth the excessive thickness and heaviness that the publisher has made of it.

Again, I’m already in a negative frame of mind and I’ve yet to read a word….

The collection of ten short stories opens with “Like A Virgin”, named after the Madonna hit of the mid 1980’s, it is a story of a teenager stealing her alcoholic mum’s tequila, going to a party with her friend, her friend getting drunk and the later consequences. “Other animals” a tale of high school friends, discussing boyfriends, the narrator’s ‘friend’ ends up going out with our story teller’s brother.

I hated Judy’s first boyfriend, as expected. He was shaped like a sweet potato. His clothes were exactly wrong. Judy had arranged for us to meet him at Circular Quay one Saturday morning, so that the three of us could go to the movies. He was waiting for us when we got off the ferry. He wore a t-shirt that said I love Brisbane, loose over his narrow shoulders, clinging around his fleshy waist. He stepped forward when he saw us and produced from behind his back a bunch of yellow flowers, six or seven of them, wound in cellophane. I got out of the way so no one would think he was giving them to me.

That’s the opening paragraph of the story “Firebugs”. The whole collection is in this style, stilted, factual, bare, not offensive but also not gripping enough to endear you to any of the characters. A collection surely aimed at the “young adult” audience, and I definitely don’t fall into that category.

In “Trouble” our narrator and her sister move to London, a story of boyfriends, bands and beer.

We’d been told that it would rain often in London, but I hadn’t thought about the kind of rain it would be. I was used to rain or no rain: a tropical torrent that swept up out of nowhere, or days of incessant sunshine that crisped the parks and made the pavements burn your bare feet. In London it just rained, greyly, endlessly, like a weepy friend, always sorry for herself. I bought umbrellas but I was always forgetting them on the tube and having to walk home with my head down, my dyed hair leaking red down my neck.

Of all the stories I found “They Fuck You Up” the most potent of all, the teenage angst, the hatred of parents, the need for independence and the boyfriend forcing his own views, “moulding” his girlfriend to take part in his own independent fantasy life, all joining to a coherent coming of age story.

The title story, “Six Bedrooms” is the tale of living in a shared house, the need to be accepted, the pandering to other housemates, the relationships and although our first person narrator “had read…everything that Helen Garner had written, over and over again” to me the social order, the chaos, and the behaviours of Garner’s “Monkey Grip” is a far superior piece of fiction. Garner’s novel also taking place in a shared house, with musicians, single mothers, actors. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s story throws in the Sydney Mardi Gras instead of the bohemian Melbourne art/music scene, to me it just doesn’t click.

As mentioned before these stories are not at all poorly written, they are not at all offensive, however personally they seem to lack any real punch, they carry all the hallmarks (plot, character, conflict, setting, style, theme – Google “key elements to a short story” and these all show up), but do they add to the genre? Personally I don’t think so. A collection I’ll surely forget I’ve ever read. Personally one to not make the shortlist that will be announced on 10 March 2016.

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