Tales entertain but menu lacks originality

By Steve Scott

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Sue Orr may be a new name in New Zealand short story writing, but she is not a new voice. Her writing echoes other notable proponents of the craft (Fiona Kidman, Stephanie Johnson, Barbara Anderson), while parodying others (Owen Marshall, Frank Sargeson).

There is an overly familiar feel as one reads - as if you have met these characters before, felt their confusion and disillusionment, joined in their bittersweet happiness and short-lived successes, and know all too well what is about to unfold.

While her prose is consistently polished and confident, it is overly safe, lacks edges and is driven by what has preceded it rather than the desire to break new ground.

Orr concerns herself with those subjects at the core of many New Zealand short story collections: mental illness, provincial isolation, loss and death. There are your farmers, disillusioned housewives, disgruntled sons and other stock New Zealand characters.

Orr is also happy to give herself over to our literary obsession with dark, rural unease - a sense that we are just hanging on by our muddy bootlaces, and that disaster and death lurk in the nightmares that these isolated places can conjure.

The most obvious example of this is to be found in the story that lends its name to the collection.

Here we find a housewife living in a small, rural community who is starting to lose her mind.

In order to rectify the situation she decides to have a dinner party. It is at this event that she breaks down and makes a rather odd and disturbing revelation. Sadly, the reader can see what's coming almost from the opening paragraph. In two other stories, Orr parodies our great writers, Marshall and Sargeson.

In the first, Fee Simple, she decides to borrow one of Marshall's lonely farmers. But unlike Marshall's bloke, he doesn't have his dog, mate and memories for company. He has a fax machine that has taken on the characteristics of his recently deceased wife - more mental illness, here, methinks.

In the other, The Stories of Frank Sargeson, Orr apes Sargeson's style as she takes us for a stroll about Dunedin. While it is amusing and an interesting experiment in storytelling, one can't help but wonder when Orr will bring her own voice to the various dinner tables that pervade these tales.

Orr's stories are well-written pieces that offer easy entertainment. But they lack a sense of freshness and originality that stories need if they are going to be compelling and, more importantly, memorable.

Etiquette for a Dinner Party
By Sue Orr (Vintage $29.99)

* Steve Scott is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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