A Constant Hum
Set in the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, Alice Bishop’s debut collection of stories packs an emotional punch. Bishop herself grew up in Christmas Hills, one of the towns ravaged by fire, and it is clear the ideas and stories in A Constant Hum have been percolating inside her for the past decade.
Told mostly from the perspective of women, or concerning the lives of women, A Constant Hum shows Bishop’s keen eye for observation. She seems to be someone who, in a restaurant or cafe, would become engrossed by conversations around her. This collection provides a similar experience: across almost 50 stories, we step into the lives of those who survived, physically at least, the tragic and calamitous fires. Some stories are mere sentences long – a vignette or, perhaps more aptly, a momentary thought. But even these shortest of stories are glimpses into the human condition; rather than being lightweight, they offer the reader a poetic pause.
There is a broad range of characters but they are all bound in their exploration of grief and coping. In one story, a woman who has lost her daughter, grandson and son-in-law stokes her grief by attending the trial of the man who sparked the fatal blaze. When it all becomes too much for her, she takes refuge in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, where she feels invisible and “imagines what it’d be like to feel normal again, just for a moment”. In another, a teacher asks the class to imagine what they would save from a burning house. The narrator names just two things – her mother, her aunt – while around her, other students list technology and other treasured possessions. In a story lasting only two sentences, a character checks Google Earth images each morning to see her house as it was – the satellite not yet caught up with reality.
Many Australian authors may have written this collection with a greater focus on nature and the physical impact on the land, describing in detail the ash-scarred landscapes, the smell and sounds of the fire and the plight of animals. While those elements are present in A Constant Hum, it is refreshing and pleasing that Bishop spends more of her time exploring the impact of the bushfires through the emotionality of her characters and getting at their inner drives and motives.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Alice Bishop, A Constant Hum". Subscribe here.