Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy

(Scribe $35)

In literature, as in everything else, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Each of the stellar stories in Australian Cate Kennedy's new collection, Like A House On Fire, would anthologise well, outshine anything else in a literary journal and likely clean up in most short-story competitions. But all together in one place, they somehow lose their impact.

Partly this may be because the modus operandi is, in 14 out of 15 cases, precisely the same. Each describes a kind of psychological turning point for a character, a crisis, a resolution. The characters are all grippingly authentic, the situations are real, terrible, and thundering emotional truths are spoken. In many cases, it seems clear that the inspiration for a story has come from a wry, oblique take on the standard English usage of a word or set of words: "the let-down reflex" in Five Dollar Family, "the front" in Laminex And Mirrors, "white spirit" in the story of the same name.


In every case the author works a conjuror's miracle, but each variation on the theme can't quite reinstate the baffled thrill you feel on seeing it first time around. Only in the last story in the collection, Seventy Two Derwents, does Kennedy try a different technique.

On the whole, the characters in these stories are ordinary folk, making their weary way somewhere in the Styx, whether suburban or rural. They're in or out of relationships, the quality of which strikes sparks off the collection's title, Like A House On Fire: the dream is of consuming, ecstatic passion; the reality is the swift and remorseless destruction of the dream.

It's not all bleak, and most stories offer a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of redemption and the dark material is leavened with liberal dashes of humour. Laminex And Mirrors is the wonderful, touching story of a teenager working as a cleaner in a hospital who strikes up a rapport with a veteran dying of some smoking-related disorder.

Seventy Two Derwents is a child's-eye view of the abusive relationship her mother is in: the claustrophobic horror is banished in a flash as the mother's self-esteem is restored by a fluke.

As most of the stories do, Kennedy's talent is for rending your heart and then warming it. All 15 of these stories are short fiction at its best.

It's advisable to eke them out and savour them slowly, like all good things.

John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.