Vignettes of modern despair

THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN
Nanjing Night Net

By Georgia Blain. Scribe. 256pp. $27.95.

After five novels, including Candelo and Darkwater, and a memoir, Births Deaths Marriages, which dealt in part with the consequences of the fraught and sometimes violent marriage of her parents, Ellis Blain and Anne Deveson, Georgia Blain has turned to the short story.

There are 13 in her new collection, The Secret Lives of Men. That is the title of the first story here, but the material that follows is more varied, as Blain explores the pain of an unfulfilled desire for children, the over-protectiveness by some towards the children they have, the dire and comic complications in the relationships of mothers and daughters. All this is beside the great staple of realist fiction for 200 years – adultery. By implication, a larger social portrait emerges of contemporary Australia – one marked by betrayal, narcissism, despair, valiant but often unavailing acceptance of responsibility. All this is in a secular and far from hopeful world.

Blain is skilled at brisk beginnings and the first line of the book is ”We always knew the locals hated us.” The locals belong to a seaside town that is the holiday resort of rich kids from the capital. When the latter clash, more than one life is ruined.

The ”secret” business of the story is the revelation of how one of the characters has made private and protracted attempts at amends for his guilt. This is a dense short story that gives the impression – as do several others – of being a compressed novel. There are tendrils of narrative that might have grown further had Blain opted for the longer form. Here, as elsewhere, her technical striving and struggles are admirably apparent. Sometimes they can lead her to a programmatic grimness, as in Enlarged + Heart + Child. In that story, and others, she also fails to untangle the welter of names with which we are greeted.

In the world of these stories, women – whatever their professional standing – often find themselves solitary and bereft. They may have been betrayed or deserted, as in the case of the narrator of Intelligence Quotient, who – having just lost her mother, ”the only other member of the family still alive” – confides in despair that ”the desire for a child crippled me at times, particularly now I was completely alone”.

Murramarang, told from the point-of-view of the architect Eloise, concerns broken friendships and failed marriages. As in The Other Side of the River, it is a story of adultery – so everyday from outside, so terrible and particular from within. Blain gives energy and originality to this time-worn material. Her style is most affecting when plain: ”Hamish had told [Eloise] that he was leaving and she had thought she would die.”

Often Blain challenges us to care about the characters whose lives she interweaves. The Bad Dog Park gives us the widowed teacher, Peter, and Doris – a diabetic dog foisted on him by his daughter – and Marnie, the dog walker. To a point, the damaged console one another. There is no easy resolution.

Mirrored opens with Blain’s typical brio – ”For three weeks we had been travelling through Rajasthan” – but this treatment of the travails of a mum and daughter seems done by the numbers. On the same matter, but nearer to home, Her Boredom Trick is layered and assured. In Escape (another novel that might have been), a vain and selfish father, given access to his children, takes them from Dullsville ”off to the land of pot, lissom young women, meals when you felt like it and six weeks of parental neglect”.

Bad faith and ensuing disappointments frequently set the dark tone of Blain’s skilled reckoning of the way we live now.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.