Saturday, 18 November 2006

Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories, 2004

THE FLAMINGO ANTHOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND SHORT STORIES, Extended Edition, edited by Michael Morrissey, HarperCollins, Auckland, New Zealand, 2004, 538 pages, paperback, $34.99. ISBN 1-86950-496-8

It’s official then. New Zealand’s most enduring short story is Along Rideout Road that Summer by Maurice Duggan. It appears in the old Oxford New Zealand Short Stories and in the McLeod and Manhire anthology Some Other Country, as well as in the Flamingo. No other short story can make this claim. Duggan is now the NZ Idol of the short story world.

This suits me. I was given a collection of Duggan’s stories as a school prize and was instantly overwhelmed by the narrator’s laconic account of young lust, with Fanny Hohepa, the “blessed damosel”, ribbons fluttering from her ukulele. It was years later before I realised how brilliantly that story is constructed.

The Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories is as solidly assembled as a Duggan short story. It’s fashionable to complain of what’s not there (No At the Bay? No pattering sheep? No Roderick Finlayson? No Maurice Gee? No Carl Nixon?) but it’s more helpful to celebrate what is there. Three Mansfields and four Sargesons! Three Graces and four Frames! Thus there is a fine foundation of older writing laid down before the younger writers emerge: Lloyd Jones, Emily Perkins, Victoria McHalick, William Brandt, Chad Taylor and Sarah Quigley. The last four are an addition in this revised version of the 2000 edition and represent as good a choice as you could make to herald a new century. There is not a wasted word among them.

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” she said doubtfully. “We know who we are, don’t we…?” The querulous speaker is Mother in Peter Wells’ darkly funny A Casual Kind of Incest. This is a grim question to come from a “lyrical sensualist” (as Editor Michael Morrissey labels Wells) but New Zealand short story writers are superb at asking grim questions.

Mother’s nervous self-doubt is to be found in many characters in this anthology, but their writers also show an awareness of the strengths and virtues of their creations. Take that marvellous moment in Owen Marshall’s The Rule of Jenny Penn when the persecuted inmates of the Totara Eventide Home finally rise up against their bullying tormentor.

In Fiona Kidman’s Dry Rot every sense is touched as a couple return, twenty years later, to the scene of their honeymoon in Rotorua. In a few pages, a whole failing marriage is laid bare with skilful word pictures, bitter memories and gifts that bring no joy.

Sue McAuley, in Mia Culpa, takes the reader inside the head and heart of a thoroughly unlikeable man and then makes us feel sorry for him, even as we despise him – boosting his self-esteem and status at the office by hiring a young prostitute to pose as his girlfriend. This is writing of the highest order.

As a representative anthology, this book is remarkably satisfying. As a student text, it represents excellent value. Best of all, it offers readers forty-four good reading experiences. And Fanny Hohepa.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on March 20th 2004

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