This explosive new volume of short stories should carry some sort of warning, an emotional equivalent to the Beware of Death stickers that now envelop cigarette packets. Prepare for Pain, perhaps. Airini Beautrais' Ockham award-winning short story collection, labelled "not for the fainthearted" by one reviewer, appears about as confrontational as a mocha milkshake when set beside the tales of "Devil's Trumpet".
In a collection of stories so varied in shape and length they constitute a style sheet for the form, Slaughter delivers a fearless, shameless exposition of want. Characters battle their way through the combat zones of their small town or shaken city or stark suburban lives. No one on these pages has escaped pain, or will.
Among the cardinal weaknesses, lust does a great deal of the critical damage. Accounts of desperate, doomed affairs frame the collection. In "If There Is No Shelter", the tragic map of consequences is drawn with particularly creative intricacy. Harnessing the cataclysmic changes rendered by a well-known city's devastating earthquake, Slaughter explores the complex intersections between fear, grief, exhaustion and denial, guilt and regret, in a wrecked cityscape of rubble and Portaloos where lovers and babies are dead and gone, husbands and families are crippled and needy, and there is no safe place left for body or soul.
What lust cannot damage, gluttony does. Drugs and drinks are what keep most of the characters afloat, but there is invariably a damn good reason for the descent into dependency. In the provocative metafiction of "Point of View", the narrator begins by announcing, "I am giving my character a drinking habit," then proceeds to delineate the decisions that go into the making of a definitive Slaughter protagonist. The piece is a fascinating exploration of the complications of delivering a narrative of hurt and the challenges of writing on the fine line between an exposition of human anguish and a diary of personal suffering.
Slaughter writes with sharp sensory force. In "Warpaint", the pub accommodation allocated to the ageing rocker of the tale is viewed through her jaded eyes in forensic detail, from her bedroom's "bolt-on sink with a brown mouth stamped Royal Doulton" to the crowd "flocking in, trimmed with chem-straightened hair and jeans you couldn't crowbar off".
At times, the collection's vivid, visceral prose is so tightly clipped and pruned that it lifted me out of the narratives. In combination with the relentless emotional bombardment that the characters endure, it was occasionally exhausting. But when it was all over, I found I was unprepared to leave; I wanted more.
The end of this collection arrives like the end of a war. Everyone left standing is supposed to go home, but nobody is intact, and nobody feels like they won anything. Which is perhaps as it should be. In Slaughter's book, life is a battlefield. And although "Devil's Trumpet" may boast no winners, survivors it has in spades.
Devil's Trumpet, by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University Press, $30)
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Reviewed by Rachel O'Connor
Rachel O'Connor is the author of Whispering City, set in Salonika on the eve of World War I. A longer version of this review will appear on www.anzliterature.com.