Every Move You Make by David Malouf

28/01/07, The Sunday Telegraph

Is poetic prose a contradiction in terms? Occasionally, when poets come to write prose or fiction, it is as if they haven’t quite shed the skin of their other incarnation and grown into a new, different life. It is with a slightly sinking heart that one discovers the relentless permeability between the two personae, the poet and the prose-writer, of the venerable David Malouf, for his latest collection of stories, Every Move You Make, is written in Very Literary Prose: self-conscious, poetic (dread word, that), dense, a swooning symphony of metaphors and similes and ‘as ifs’. All of which would have counted as strengths if the material in hand had corresponded to the complex delights of the prose but, failing this (mostly), it achieves a slightly bathetic effect, of a mild futility.
     But where it works, it works with majestic power, as in the best story in the collection, ‘The Valley of Lagoons’, narrated by sixteen year-old Angus, about a modern-day initiation ceremony of his best friend, Braden McGowan, at a hunting trip in the wilds of north Queensland. But the story is really about Stuart, Brendan’s brother, who has just been ditched by Katie, Angus’s sister. Almost Chekhovian in the way the inner weather is calibrated in the prose by an answering focus on external nature, the story is beautifully lush, elegant, truthful. Very different, and equally successful, is ‘Mrs Porter and the Rock’, about an ‘uncultured’ salt-of-the-earth woman finding a very surprising kind of freedom, at Ayers Rock, Uluru, from the coercive pincers of sophistication and culture, one arm of which is wielded by her dead husband, Leonard, the other by her son, Douglas, within which her life has been held so far. However, the title-story, a story of love found and lost, is naff, unconvincing, almost borderline Danielle Steel, while the final one, ‘The Domestic Cantata’, ambitious in its attempt to draw large musical arcs of connection between the past and present of several lives at a dinner party in a composer’s home, doesn’t quite come off.
     Tennessee Williams once wrote, ‘A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.’ Malouf is surely one of our deftest and most fleet-footed guide through that terrain. It’s just that all that plush, over-upholstered prose leaves the reader craving the austere purity of, say, Cormac McCarthy or Ishiguro.