“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Review: How a Moth Becomes a Boat

How a Moth Becomes a Boat
By Josephine Rowe
Hunter Publishers

Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat is a collection of short stories originally published by Cherry Fox Press in 2009, which has just been reissued for a wider audience by Hunter Publishers. But even to call Rowe’s work short stories is partially erroneous; this slender, 79-page book actually comprises nineteen extremely brief short stories, most of which are under 1000 words in keeping with the genre variously known as either flash fiction or micro fiction.
While the book may be slim, however, nothing about these stories feels slight. Although written in prose, Rowe’s stories have the feel and shape of lyric and confessional poetry (and fittingly, Rowe is also a poet). Rowe’s stories are wonderfully economical and concise; entire narratives develop over the space of a few hundred words, and despite its brevity, anyone finishing How a Moth Becomes a Boat will no doubt feel that they have, indeed, finished reading an entire collection of short fiction. Rowe consistently evokes precise images that deftly convey the emotional impact of a much larger story.
The stories cover varied terrain, but situations and themes return. Many stories involve younger artists and creative types living in sharehouses in suburban Melbourne (and abroad), or discuss the fallout from failed relationships or else the emotional scars inflicted by negligent or absent parents. But such a description doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the prose inside this book. Indeed, in its physical size, restrained prose and thematics, the book recalls Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers.
But there’s something in Rowe’s style that separates her from Garner as well. In the seeming simplicity of her spare prose, one can also sense the ghost of Modernism, and the style of such writers as William Carlos Williams (in his story ‘The Knife of the Times’) or even Gertrude Stein (in Tender Buttons).
There are too many great stories in here to name them all, but I’ll quickly note a few of my favourites, including ‘Tame’ about a father watching his children feed wild foxes, ‘Tape’ about a man who finds a cassette that contains a recording of his dead wife, and the stories ‘Love’ and ‘Belt’, which are both about a woman’s relationship with her estranged father. It’s a book-reviewing cliché to say of a short story collection that some stories are better than others; this is true of all short story collections, even the best ones. What I’d rather say here about Rowe’s work is that, while I had my favourites, every story kept me engaged and wanting to read more.
This is a beautifully wrought and wonderfully eclectic debut, written with a strong and unique authorial voice. In short, it’s exceptional – a brilliant, powerful collection of very short, short fiction.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters program.

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