Book Review: From Under The Overcoat

By Kelly Ana Morey

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From Under The Overcoat by Sue Orr
Vintage, $29.99

Book cover of From Under The Overcoat. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of From Under The Overcoat. Photo / Supplied

Though Sue Orr's new collection of short stories, From Under The Overcoat, references short stories by literary greats such as Nikolay Gogol (The Over Coat), James Joyce (The Dead) and Katherine Mansfield (The Doll's House) don't hold that against it. For as Gretta Conroy says in A Regrettable Slip of the Tongue: "This is, after all, a book of modern stories, a New Zealand book." Jolly good it is, too.

Orr is, I think, a writer who's genuinely interested in a whole range of people, the things they do and the lies they tell themselves and each other depending on their circumstances.

The narrators are a mixed bunch and include a teenage boy, a character from one of the referenced short stories, a middle-class discontented wife with a ticket out, a young woman who's just watched a year of her life disappear into a haze of marijuana smoke, an abused teenager, Tawhiri, the Maori god of weather seeing out his twilight years at a television station, and the beleaguered father of a sick child.

The stories themselves are very even in their quality and this is definitely the sort of collection where different stories will appeal to different readers. Spectacles is just heartbreaking and opens up a whole can of worms about writers ostensibly being the purveyors of other people's pain. The Open Home, with its fragile, doll-like mother, resolute daughter/narrator and the spinach-green and yellow of the house, is beautiful; Recreation, which reworks the Maori creation myth, shows how contemporary that story really is, and the interior monologues of George Clarke Junior and A Regrettable Slip of the Tongue are pulled off with great alacrity. There's no doubt that these stories all successfully stand alone. However, the post-modernist referencing in the shamefully few stories where I was familiar with the source material certainly did add a whole other dimension.

Under the Overcoat comes with quite extensive notes for a work of fiction: there's an author's introduction, a story-by-story explanation of how the source material has been used and, most delightfully, The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol in full, which I had never read. Perhaps a more literary reader would find all this explaining unnecessary, but I found myself constantly referencing these bits as I read the stories and certainly the notes added considerably to my enjoyment of the collection.

From Under The Overcoat is a lively collection of beautifully written and very clever, but utterly human stories, rich in pathos and humour, and I look forward to Orr's promised novel.

- NZ Herald

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