Two girls are on a prestigious exchange trip to Indonesia. Giselle is the shining star of the duo; she sailed through the interviews and was shortlisted immediately. For Sandra, it was more touch and go; she got her spot by parroting a political opinion of her mother’s. Viewed through Sandra’s eyes, her friend’s charmed existence and natural excellence continue across the exchange. Slowly, however, Sandra starts to come into her own. But then, in one fell swoop both Giselle and Sandra are brought low – by a man, and by distant violence.
Dreams They Forgot is a collection of short stories that travels all across the world, stretching from the modern day back into the past. Ultimately, every story is about women, the hurdles they face, and how the setting or era does little to change core issues.
All of Emma Ashmere’s women are fighting in some way – against societal expectations, against gender roles, against scars passed down through generations. Not all of them win. The motif of a woman being overshadowed by a more exciting, more carefree friend appears again and again, and the stories explore, from a variety of angles, the ideas of ill health, war, trauma and post-traumatic stress, and a failure to learn from history.
Thematically the collection is consistently strong; in form however the quality gently wavers. While Ashmere moves skilfully and seamlessly between eras and places, and every story has something to recommend it, many end rather abruptly, meaning that carefully constructed characters and scenarios can sometimes feel robbed of breathing room. Ashmere also puts great trust in her reader, which for most of the time is an asset. In some stories, though, the details and language are so sparse that on occasion it can be difficult to follow leaps in plot and character motivation.
But this variety is also a strength, making each story feel different from those surrounding it. Standouts include the extremely brief but impactful “After the Storm”, and “The Relaxing Jar”, in which many of the collection’s key themes come together in a simmering, dark rage.
Many of the pieces in Dreams They Forgot have been published in journals or shortlisted in prizes over the past 20 years. As a collection, it is a thoughtful meditation on the things that can hold you down, and the different ways through.
Wakefield, 252pp, $24.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2020 as "Emma Ashmere, Dreams They Forgot".
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