Packing plenty of punch

By David Hill

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Sarah Quigley's stories provide a perceptive report on human temperaments.
Photo / Sebastian Schrade
Sarah Quigley's stories provide a perceptive report on human temperaments. Photo / Sebastian Schrade

Publishers are wary of short stories. They don't sell as easily or pleasingly as novels. I suspect that's partly because they don't absorb you in the same way; you have to read them in measured doses, with pauses for reflection in between.

Yet the best short stories punch well above their weight. They can combine the allusiveness and elusiveness of poetry with the engagement and epiphanies of long fiction. In this collection, Sarah Quigley often manages that.

Like many successful novelists, Quigley began with short stories. She's won awards in the form. These 22 pieces reflect an accomplished and assured author.

They're mostly short, except for one near-novella-sized inclusion. The writing is restrained, dispassionate almost, but the narratives resonate with meaning and emotion.

As the title suggests, that emotion circles around riffs on tenderness: its variations and
antitheses; the way it can transfigure lives.

You see this in the 75-page The Marriage Mender, with its story of anxious parental love, mutability and mortality, the tenderness that comes only from other human beings; and even a dash of marriage counselling.

There are moments of utter lyricism: "When you smiled, clocks started up all over the city like a thousand heartbeats, and the day opened its arms, and we were safe."

Love in mostly fleshly forms makes the world go round in LA, Hawaii, the tip of Argentina, Opunake and Hawera, a city of cheesecakes, another of potential earthquakes.

Lovers separate quietly or abusively, sport an amethyst ring on a mutilated hand, walk in a snow-covered garden, sabotage a dinner with neighbours. Sex rears its obligatory and enthusiastic head - in a black satin bed, on a cheap nylon carpet or floral synthetic bedspread.

Opposites attract, so tenderness is counterpointed by bickering, betrayal, rueful reconciliations. Teeth and claws glint a good deal. Characters can be astonishingly selfless or gloriously selfish, feral or fabulous (there's even one who can make buildings disappear). They look at one another with wonder or distaste. When they have to tell a partner "I was joking" twice in one evening, the omens are indeed ominous. Quigley is fascinated by them all.

The stories come with variations of style as well as emotion. Some step across swathes of space-time; some are like photo montages. They swoop from the mundane to the miraculous: a character semi-morphs into a hen or a gopher. Like a lot of good short fiction, they often imply more than they state. Bigger shapes are glimpsed in the background.

They crackle with dialogue like a firefight, and moments of slyly mordant humour. Just when she wants to be at her most sophisticated, a girl is liable to end up wrist-deep in a bowl of raspberries.

A few don't get beyond a glimpse. A few show off fine sentences or clever quips. The odd character doesn't grow beyond caricature. But Quigley provides a perceptive, often elegant report on human temperaments, and the universal longing for a little, well, tenderness.

Tenderness stories by Sarah Quigley (Vintage $37.99)

- NZ Herald

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