Anne Casey-Hardy’s debut collection of short stories bristles with energy, menace and joy. With a title that conjures the folk stories told to frighten children away from forbidden acts, Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls promises the kind of misadventure best summed up by the warning, “Mum would have said, Well what do you expect if you go down to the creek at night?”
The heroines of Casey-Hardy’s stories face off against pivotal life transitions – adolescence, new motherhood, middle age – with equal parts clumsiness and bravery. On their way, they trip over social and moral quandaries, delivered by Casey-Hardy with a knowing wink to the reader and a delightful lack of cynicism.
Resonating with nostalgia, these Cautionary Tales travel the familiar bars, streets and suburbs of Melbourne, throwing back to hormone-charged teenagers sprayed with Impulse, listening to The Smashing Pumpkins and drinking Southern Comfort. Meanwhile, ghosts lurk at the edges and the things left unsaid lend a surreal edge to the collection. Casey-Hardy handles her characters with care, withholding judgement while exposing their vulnerabilities through their naive honesty as they teeter at the brink of uncovering the secrets of womanhood.
Two 14-year-old girls snatch a baby for a daytime adventure, taking turns at pretending to be the mother. Faced with a cash dilemma, one of them reflects, “A tough choice … Ciggies or food? A hard life but you wouldn’t trade the baby for anything in the world.” A new mother in the thick fugue of sleeplessness and grief is visited by her scornful teenage self: “Younger me and I study ourselves … the sight of me before her is someone else’s bad dream and nothing more.” A socially awkward girl contemplates her newly hatched sexuality at a New Year’s Eve party: “I didn’t even know what I was, but hopefully a lesbian. Or just a drunk fat girl.” A teenage girl disappears at a beachside schoolies party. Her friend later remembers, “The last time I saw Christie, she was walking away from our campsite, a slight drunken wobble in her stride, full of life and beauty. Eternally 14.”
With several individual standouts, Casey-Hardy’s debut might have packed a stronger punch with fewer stories included. Some are too prematurely abandoned to deliver a satisfying conclusion, a couple read like writing experiments rather than polished pieces, and the repetitive themes cause drag on the momentum of an otherwise charming collection.
Scribner Australia, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls, Anne Casey-Hardy".
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