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Book Reviews

Verandah People

by Jonathan Bennett

From the title of this collection of short stories, you might expect a series of languid tales that unfold during a relaxing day in the countryside. You’d be wrong. This follow-up to Bennett’s debut novel, After Battersea Park, centres on death, disappointment, and some decidedly unlikable characters. Instead of iced-tea and lounging chairs, the images that stay with the reader are of beer and blood.

For the most part, the 12 stories follow a similar pattern: set on the coast or in the bush of Australia, characters and relationships are built with patient detail, but just when you grow comfortable and understand the story’s pattern, tragedy and devastation erupt. This is true literally in “About Walking,” which begins as a simple story of a brother and sister shopping for her upcoming wedding, altered drastically when a man’s body plummets down through the glass ceiling of the mall, an event that precipitates the brother losing his mind.

At times, these shocks and surprises bring the stories to a new level, evolving into metaphors of mythical proportions. Other times, the calamities seem plopped into the middle of the narrative, failing to make ripples outward in the form of foreshadowing or meaningful consequence. In these cases, the disaster’s significance seems to be that there is none, that our lives are fraught with unexpected suffering, disconnected from the everyday. It is an interesting observation, but one that leaves these stories feeling empty of psychological complexity.

Despite these plot difficulties, Bennett’s tremendous talent shines in passages brimming with sensuality – textures, tastes, quality of light, motes of dust swirling about the air. In the closing story, a character is described by way of the trees – “She feels a kindred spirit with them, the way they twist up under themselves in the heat, the bark curling off in long tubes like waves breaking down the beach.”

Throughout, Bennett draws from his upbringing in Australia (he now lives in Port Hope, Ontario) to evoke the continent’s harsh and exhilarating environment with striking images that transcend mere physical description.