Cover of book: The High Places

Fiona McFarlane
The High Places

Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel, 2013’s The Night Guest, was a critical triumph that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, sold into 15 territories (at last count) and praised by the likes of Michelle de Kretser, Kate Atkinson and Susanna Moore. The jacket of The High Places, her new short story collection, is dotted with superlatives for this earlier novel. “Stellar”, it says, and “excellent”. McFarlane, the back cover tells us, has “the promise of literary greatness”.

The short story, though, is a different beast entirely from the novel and genuine brilliance at both the sprawling, world-building macro end of fiction as well as the polished, gem-like micro end is exponentially rarer. Have her publishers over-egged this work, from a writer still serving her literary apprenticeship?

In a word, no. The High Places is superb.

Perhaps McFarlane’s first story, “Exotic Animal Medicine”, is the standout. From the first line, “The wife was driving on the night they hit Mr Ronald”, this story of a just-married couple’s fateful trip from the registry office is wry and sad and perfect. Or perhaps the best is the mannered and strange “Man and Bird”, featuring the relationship between Reverend Adams, who “walked with an incongruous maritime swell that might, in another man, have passed for a swagger, and was careful in the maintenance of a small yellow car that he rarely drove faster than seventy kilometres an hour” and his parrot, “the stiff crinoline of its feathers; the Pentecostal lick of yellow flame on its head; the tiny eyes and wormy claws; that grey, awful beak”.

There’s nothing experimental here, or tricky for its own sake. “Good News for Modern Man” follows all the conventions of fiction, beginning with the way the first-person narrator reveals his location on the first page (“...this small corner of the Pacific...”) and his name and occupation before too long (“...Dr William Birch, eminent marine biologist”). Bill is a classic unreliable narrator, which is also clear: he speaks to the ghost of Darwin, who “...suspects malaria, which is possible; I stopped taking my meds on day 300, partly because of the dreams they gave me, bright crystal dreams of exhausting flight”.

None of this is a criticism. When the writing is this strong, gimmicks aren’t required. Bill has, over the course of his research, imprisoned a colossal squid he’s named Mabel in a bay. A “facility” will be built to house her, but now, he’s changed his mind:

“I was once quite certain that God so loved the world,” Bill says. “How sudden it was, on day 282: God’s absence upon my shoulders, like a heavy flightless bird that can still hop to a height. How sobering to pass from Dr William Birch, beloved of God, to Bill Birch, organism ... And I saw Mabel differently after that ... Mabel must be free.”

Bill can’t unplug the bay to release her to the ocean on his own. It’s a dangerous job. When he and his helpers free her, he thinks, they’ll “...feel the water close around our arms and legs and [we] make our way through it with difficulty and determination, singing and proclaiming and making promises, kneeling and rising and sitting and standing. It feels like the unbearable presence of God, His hands on our submarine chests.” The action itself is a prayer, a natural extension of his changing relationship with his job, with nature and with God.

I’ve a soft spot also for “Those Americans Falling from the Sky”. Sisters Nora and Jeanie live in Merrigool, country Australia, during World War II. (McFarlane makes Merrigool seem so real that I Googled it, in vain.) Their lives are changed by the coming of American airmen and Japanese internees, and by their mother’s new husband. Their father left years earlier, long before he enlisted and was sent to Egypt. Jeanie, our narrator, tells us that:

One day we received a letter from a woman named Hélène, also from Egypt, accompanied by a rainbow school of foil fish, all neatly cut from sweet wrappers by our father’s careful, concentrating left hand. There were over two hundred of them. We played with them for a week before abandoning them in a silver-backed pile. For many years afterward we found stray fish around the house, blue and gold minnows beneath loose tiles, brilliant green sardines swimming in the dust behind chests of drawers.

The girls received this letter before the one that told them he was dead. They are left to deal with the menace of their stepfather alone.

It’s not just that McFarlane’s descriptions are beautiful prose, though they are. The High Places is more deliberate than that, and more intelligent. McFarlane strikes an emotional note on every page, whether it be humour or nostalgia or discomfort or joy. She doesn’t rely on surprise endings or reveals. If I squint I can make out preoccupations: she is interested in animals both wild and domestic and our relationships with them; the elderly and the complications of ageing; and the clashes and surprising alignments of faith and science, among other things, but each story feels fresh and original. Her characters are frequently powerless and in other hands this might translate to passivity but they have rich inner lives that she reveals without exposition, and they notice things and see the world in idiosyncratic ways. The stories move in time and place (including London, Sydney, Mycenae, a country town, an isolated Pacific island; early ’60s, modern day), while others float undefined. Nothing is forced and the reason I can’t pick my favourite is that every one of the 13 stories is a winner.

Last year was the strongest for short fiction that I can recall in two decades: collections from Tegan Bennett Daylight, Abigail Ulman and Elizabeth Harrower, among others, set new standards for lyrical, emotional, hard-hitting stories. It’s still only January so it would be a foolish reviewer to declare The High Places likely to be the best collection of 2016. So I won’t. I’ll keep that thought to myself.  LS

Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2016 as "Fiona McFarlane, The High Places".

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Reviewer: LS

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