The Turning by Tim Winton
Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance by Matthew Kneale

02/04/05, The Times

‘Short stories’ is a low, dirty term in English publishing circles. If you so much as mention it out aloud, you will be dragged off to a corner by a senior publishing executive or some such and subjected to a Clockwork Orange-type treatment to cleanse your mind of such unmentionables. Clearly such a regime obtains at Picador where publishers and sales and marketing people have colluded to avoid strenuously any mention of the genre that dare not speak its name. While there is some justification for this with Tim Winton’s The Turning, it only shows up the disingenuousness of publishers with Matthew Kneale’s book.

The Turning comprises seventeen stories, all linked by recurring characters in and from the town of Angelus on the south-western Australian coast. So, for example, ‘Abbreviation’, the story in which we first encounter Vic Lang, is about the twelve year-old’s sexual awakening. ‘Damaged Goods’, narrated by Vic’s wife, Gail, is about her husband’s borderline obsession with a girl with a birthmark he knew at school. ‘On Her Knees’, narrated by Vic himself, tells the story of his fiercely proud mother’s struggles to bring him up after her husband walks out. ‘Long, Clear View’, ‘Commission’, and ‘Fog’ tell not only the back story of how the life of police constable Bob Lang, Vic’s father, fell apart and led to the subsequent implosion of his marriage to Carol, but also the arcing forward of their particular stories to a future reconciliation. The narrative has to be pieced together from the fractured, dispersed, non-linear episodes, shuttling back and forth in time and told from several points of view. Fragment by fragment, a fuller narrative of these lives emerges and the effect of reading the book is one of gradual illumination: it enacts for the reader one of its overarching themes – the retrospective and incremental nature of knowledge.

Not all the stories are about the Langs. A triptych composed of ‘The Turning, ‘Sand’, and ‘Family’ gives us the story of brothers Max and Frank, the last two about their poisonous relationship, the first, about the sour, violently abusive marriage of Max and Raelene. The longest story in the collection, ‘Boner McPharlin’s Moll’, expands on incidents mentioned in an earlier tale and builds up an excruciatingly moving picture of damage, adult corruption and menace. Throughout the book, the technique is one of picking up a throwaway comment here, a name there, an episode or a casual mention of something elsewhere, and then weaving a fuller story, fleshing out yet another bit of the canvas, but in oblique, almost orthogonal, ways, never in a blunt or head-on manner. It calls for an intelligent alertness in the reader, a concentration that is repaid with such generosity that the giving famishes the craving. The links are not just of setting, context, relationships, but also of broader themes – of the ineradicability of history and of what can offer salvation to damaged lives.

Winton has always been a poet of baffled souls stretched out on the rack – think of Fred Scully in The Riders, the end-of-the-road lives of Georgie Jutland and Luther Fox in Dirt Music – and here he ratchets up further the bleakness of these damaged lives caught in the inescapable grip of the past. Always a writer of crystalline, luminous prose, his lines of sinewy leanness achieve such lapidary clarity here that it seems one is reading line after line of perfect music. His unbounded humanity and his sympathy for his characters descend on them like grace as they struggle to salvage their lives. To read him is to be reminded not just of the possibilities of fiction but also of the possibilities of the human heart.

Alas, no such claim can be made for Matthew Kneale’s tendentious and dull collection of short stories, Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, which comes as a disappointment after the delicious carnival of English Passengers. The prose is so workmanlike, so clunky, in this series of stories, all indictments of the West in its baneful influence and effect on the rest of the world, that any sympathy for Kneale’s liberal good intentions is choked out before long by the grey ordinariness of the stories. Let’s hope this is one of those brief glitches all good writers go through.