Books

S. J. Norman
Permafrost

I remember the nightmare. Of course I do. It did not want to be forgotten. It demanded space, and I gave it space. The absence of control, the fact I had no say in my narrative – that I was both bystander and helpless protagonist – was an implacable loss. I awoke; only my loss continued. It goes on still.

This nightmare was akin to what the narrators experience in S. J. Norman’s debut collection, Permafrost. In “Unspeakable”, a person is taken by a tour guide through Auschwitz. They relate how their guide longs for “things that take nothing from you and leave no residue”. Norman offers readers the opposite: an eerie, ineffable sense of haunted isolation.

Permafrost’s narrators are first-person mysteries. Lonely and enigmatic, they find that “Every minute ritual, every familiar sensation is a foothold in the sheer, vertiginous drop of solitude”. UQP describe the work as “autofictional”, but this is a misnomer – though the term was never much more than marketing speak to begin with. The happy accumulation of details that happen to coincide with the author’s life is not autofiction; it’s a starting point.

Chilly landscapes predominate: Hokkaido, England, Poland, Berlin. They form a kind of hinterland. Think, too, of the etymology of that word: from the German, hinter, meaning behind; a territory normally closed off or impenetrable, mysterious, forested.

In “Stepmother”, a young girl, acutely conscious of her gender and age, takes a trip with her father and his new partner: “I wanted to live a weightless life, always floating.” It is a keenly felt narrative of family dynamics – her stepmother’s exotic, lively, voluptuous world blotting out the long-suffering, anonymous figure of her mother, “backlit ... through the half-open side door”. Norman reflects on sex and death, as filtered through the consciousness of a girl who is coming to know both. She is prepubescent and, it is hinted, a little puppy-fat: “potato-shaped”, as she puts it.

Her stepmother is dangerous and carnal, “Dragging the tips of her red enamel fingers over the contours of a map”, a figure akin to one of those “Women with blood in their teeth” whom the family observe at Canberra’s National Gallery. Wry detail predominates: hotels “smelled the way that hotels smell” (the tautological accuracy of that understatement); Renaissance portraits of Virgin and Child depict “The man’s fingers, pincered, slightly camp, delivering a blessing”; swimming “relieved me of the weight of my own flesh”. Norman conveys a sense of the twilit period between childhood and puberty, when we are still fascinated by the diaphanous texture of life and the contours of our slowly vanishing prepubescence. The story’s final reveal is mysterious and gentle, a dream just beginning to bloom at the edge of consciousness.

In the title story, originally published in 2005, our narrator describes visiting an ex-lover in Hokkaido. Recalling her disappearance from their life, we are told how, “Slowly but surely, she began to fade out, until all that was left was a memory of skin, of crooked teeth, of a solid black fringe”.

The Cheshire Cat image is apt, and not only because many of these stories seem to occur somewhere through the looking glass; there are recurring gestures to the idea of disembodiment. Much of the story’s sinister effect is generated by its dissociative narrative voice: “I wake up to a solid-black fringe and a pair of equally solid-black glasses, staring me directly in the face. There’s a hand on the back of my neck and a smell that I recognise.”

Note the highly unusual suggestion of that “hand on the back of my neck”. Nothing about this observation is expressly discomfiting, yet the effect of its neutrality, its spectral conveyance (“a smell that I recognise”) is unmistakably sinister, a shock smuggled in through mundane observation. As the narrator observes, seeing the cut hands of a blind sushi chef – which also recall the scarred knuckles mentioned in “Playback” – the effect is of a world “confidently disembodied”. Taken literally, Norman’s observations are prosaic: there is no elevated voice, no categorical indication that anything unusual has taken place. Perhaps nothing has. Yet something is distinctly unsettled – as if waking reality has come unstuck and continues, but with a newly furtive aspect.

Recalling an older tradition of fantastic and uncanny literature, the narrators are plagued by a sense of vulnerability, haplessly susceptible to the intrusions of the world around them. The narrator of “Permafrost”, aware of the abundance of dog hair at the house they are staying in, observes: “I wash my hands, but every time I touch something more black whiskers attach themselves to my fingers.” The story gestures towards traditional elements of the Japanese uncanny – hair; dog spirits or inugami. The narrator of “Whitehart”, terrified by a stinging sensation beneath their skin, discovers they have trampled through brambles; snowflakes enter through an open apartment window in “Hinterhaus”. This could be unnerving or delicate; the brilliance is that it is both. “What was I dreaming? What’s been interrupted by my waking?” asks the story’s narrator. Their confusion provides an apt guide to Norman’s universe: “Wide aware but inert in the dark, I know already that this dream is going to cling to me. I’ll be carrying its imprint around all day.”

Declan Fry

University of Queensland Press, 256pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Permafrost, S. J. Norman".

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Reviewer: Declan Fry