The line, “One day the longing became too great to bear”, appears in “Small Talk”, one of the eight stories that make up Do You Love Me or What?, Sue Woolfe’s collection of longish short fiction. It refers to Diana, an urban Australian who yearns to spend time in the desert and talk – meaningfully, whatever that means for a privileged white woman – with the Indigenous people who live there. She believes it will enable her, a child of migrants who’ve fled some unnamed oppression, to feel as if she belongs here, in this country. She wants this sense of connection deeply.
That sentence, though, could refer to any of the protagonists in this thoughtful collection about the yearnings for love and belonging that arise deep within. In the title story, the unnamed narrator lives with her husband on an island a short boat ride off the coast of Queensland. She falls for a woman she’s met only briefly and invites her to stay with them. Her husband is resigned, initially. She wonders about friendship, “… at what point it melts into love”. The woman, in their single encounter, has shown a profound understanding and is “achingly pretty”, and it’s the seemingly casual use of this word, “achingly”, that shows Woolfe’s intelligence and diligence. Nothing here is casual. Every word in this collection has been deliberately chosen and placed as if by tweezers. The aching belongs, not to the visiting friend, but to the narrator.
In “Shame”, the longing is for a child. Diana is an editor, whose “… baby craving had become so acute that when she saw a baby in someone’s arms, she held a phantom one in her own …” Some cravings in the collection are more difficult to pin down: in “The Dancer Talks”, Magdalena, a member of a tango troupe, develops a sudden and severe eye condition in her early 40s. She’s an inward person, without family or many friends, whose “starting assumption is imminent banishment”, but she’s frequently co-opted into friendships she’s unsure about because she’s so self-effacing that acquaintances project their own requirements upon her. “She knew what she really yearned for was love, oh how her whole being yearned.” In the story, much depends on whether Magdalena can finally decide to be the one who does the reaching out.
Woolfe has an uncanny understanding of emotions that lurk just beyond the ability of the English language to express. In “The Last Taxi Away from Here”, the narrator “secretly wanted more … the wanting that you feel when a piece of music ends and something seems left out. The notes end in mid-air, lopped off. And because they’re not finished, you have a hole inside you. A hole in your soul.”
Using imperfect words to delve into nameless things is a tricky business. The bulk of the prose shines: a man’s face “with its muscles and crinkles, broke into many surfaces when he smiled, so that for me it was like crushed velvet”; another man has “a scrubbed quality to his almost transparent skin, as fine as a woman’s, so that I want to stand him against the window light to find out what handsome men are made of”. When Diana arrives in the desert in “Small Talk”, Woolfe’s descriptions are wondrous and clearly the work of someone with an intimate understanding of the place, as well as a painter’s eye: “… the ground turned from black to the colour of sunsets, blushes, apricots”; “In early light the dust was mauve, the mulga tress were olive, the mountains were emerald green.” There’s more about colours, too, in “The List-Maker”, an epistolary story in which a damaged author tells a friend about a man she is – too determinedly –not in love with. If words fail these nebulous, conflicting emotional states, perhaps colours are the only way to describe them. “Is he thinking of me right now?” Woolfe’s protagonist wonders. “A green stream of blazing light?”
Do You Love Me or What? isn’t a living collection in the way that stories with flaws can somehow possess a ragged, beating heart. Woolfe’s style is more like intricate cut crystal, but that’s a stylistic observation, not a qualitative one. Only occasionally does she tip over into the sculptured and forced, and not every story has the same level of nuance and buried intensity. “Passport”, in which a woman who has longed since girlhood for closeness with her father, manages to piece together an explanation for the difficulties of their relationship, sits more solidly on the earth than the other stories. The dialogue lacks Woolfe’s usual floating quality and the ending is pat rather than resonant.
For a book that deals with existential fears and chasms, Do You Love Me or What? is surprisingly hopeful. Frequently Woolfe’s characters find their convoluted way to a kind of unexpected peace: at the height of Magdalena’s fears about her future, she re-evaluates her anxiety and focus she’s always paid to the smallest details of her life. “She suddenly wondered why she’d always found them worrying. Why, all she’d needed to do, she now thought, had been to be happy.” Diana, the editor who wants a baby, comes to a remarkable realisation in the face of temptation: “… that those of us who’ve somehow found a temporary place in this slippery whirling world must hold out a hand to those who haven’t”. The letter writer in “The List-Maker” survives her far-reaching trauma by understanding, “This is the way to care for yourself. Not karate not kickboxing not yelling. Maybe not even making lists, but finding kindness.”
There’s nothing trite or didactic in these ideas, and all her protagonists earn them. Over a long and distinguished career, Woolfe has shown a rare ability to blend technical skill with real heart. Here, with beautiful prose and remarkable wisdom, she shows us, if not a specific means of filling the nameless holes in our souls, at least the realisation that we are not alone and we too can survive them. LS
Simon & Schuster, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "Sue Woolfe, Do You Love Me or What?".
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