She Is Haunted
by Paige Clark
(Allen & Unwin, $33)
Reviewing pukapuka in lockdown is a weird time. Technically, of course, it ought to be easy: no PPE required and you can do it from home. But there's something about level 4 that takes my normal ability to read and twists it inside out.
That twistiness turned out to be a good match for She Is Haunted, a new collection of short stories from Chinese/American/Australian writer Paige Clark (currently based in Melbourne). In their originality and shocking excellence these stories reminded me of the mahi of Pip Adam and Sharon Lam. I just sort of … gaped at them. The strangeness and delicacy of the prose seemed to match my increasingly tenuous hold on external reality.
She Is Haunted took my uneasy sense of dissociation and reflected it back to me, guiding me through a hall of mirrors and back out into the world. Many of the characters are living in strange states: brain modification, dementia, delusion, intense self-deception. Some are ghosts peering in on the living.
Here are a selection of the stories' opening lines to give you an idea. "I make a deal with God. He stands on my verandah and asks after my husband." "Davey is not afraid of earthquakes. He doesn't believe in them, the same way some people don't believe in ghosts." "The unflappable Elisabeth P Loo, of sound body and mind, vowed she would work harder in Chemistry for the next three weeks." "Maybe if the man had not been an anaesthetist, or if the bubbly wine at the restaurant had been opened the night before, or even if the man had showed up five minutes late, apologetic but breathless, careless in the way the woman hated the most, she wouldn't have lied and said she was vegetarian." "Tommy was born in the year of the station wagon." "I get half of nothing."
Many of the stories are centred around Chinese-American or Chinese-Australian characters, and contain familiar themes of generational differences in immigrant families and the loss and recovery of native languages. Clark has a particularly deft touch in illustrating complicated mother-daughter relationships that range from strained to downright cruel. "If my mother had called me and asked, 'What have I done that you can't forget?' I would have said, 'I can forgive anything.' But she never called and that is what I can never forget." In this story, the protagonist's mother is balding, and in revenge she hacks off her daughter's hair. "Tell someone you do not speak to your mother and they always say you should instead of why … she is always there like a phantom limb, the body's memory of what is lost."
She Is Haunted is dedicated to "all the Elizabeths who have lived through this and more". All the Elizabeths! I have never thought of us like that before. But here we are, and we have a pukapuka of our very own. Ngā mihi nui.
- Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage