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A Humble Review of "Crow's Breath"

Crow’s Breath is a magnificent collection of short stories. The narratives are not directly connected to one another and are singular portraits of humans nature. Spectacular events were not necessary for John Kinsella to create the many plots and develop the narratives. Instead, he skilfully makes use of simple everyday occurrences that so well depict life so succinctly. Kinsella’s dexterity is even more impressive if we take into consideration that most stories in this collection are no longer than 7 pages. They are, however, deceptively comprehensive: If the word count is low, he magically manages to include everything a story needs. It’s almost like there is indeed some kind of spell. Like those dreams that leave the sensation that we have spent the whole night dreaming, when actually science tells us that in fact most lucid dreams fall between 5 to 30 minutes.

There are many detailed descriptions, but those are restricted to what is meaningful and relevant - “His face, so gnarled and damaged by the sun, reddened”(p.123), we are told of an Australian widow who finds himself obsessed - infatuated? - with a statue in a British Museum. We don’t know what his hair looks like, nor what he was wearing. But we are informed that ‘the face reddened’, with embarrassment.This is a man who has had a tough life and his “damaged” face is there as evidence. We are not talking about an urban man, or an academic, protected by the comfort of walls and ceilings. This is rustic character, who nevertheless, blushes as he, to his own surprise, displays some rather unusual (and needless to say, unexpected) reactions towards a female statue.

In the first story, we witness an innocent child, whose mother is late for picking him up from the bus stop after school. As he waits and observes ants, creatures we learn he is particularly fond of - ‘he grew distraught watching them stamp on ants ” (p.10), an eagle appears. In his own internal world, the boy - we never get to find out his name - remembers how he’s been told an eagle can devour a whole lamb, and then he remembers how his mother calls him ‘my little lamb’. Is that an allusion to biblical messages of sacrifice? Also interestingly is the reference to the Mum - no name given to her either - speaking to her son in a different way when the Dad was not present: “Did my little lamb enjoy his breakfast? (…) I’m glad to hear that, my darling. When Dad was away Mum always spoke to him like that” (p.11). It is up to us to fill in the missing bits and decide whether the Dad overtly disapproves of such demonstrations of affection.

Not all of the stories are set in Australia. We also get glimpses of other parts of the world, such us Ireland, England, USA, and even the French Reunion Island. The story Feeding the Dogs is set in the latter location. The place is presented as a holiday destination for many, full of stray dogs. Kinsella’s great ability to depict the bias that is so often present in people’s lives is exemplified when we are told that “The whole Family hates France, but one or two of them will go to there when they finish school. (…) Their Island is still being made, and they are still being made. They cannot forget their past, the enslavement of their ancestors. Someone has to pay. Should pay” (p. 129). Like Australia, that Island was “colonised” by white Europeans. Its native people suffered oppression and were enslaved, like in many other parts of “The New World”.

Many a theme figure in this wonderful collection, from thieving, to prostitution, drug addiction - all of which can be found as early as in the second story -, unfaithfulness, deceit, loneliness, fear, just to name a few. The main character in The Plough Star and the Fence, a young man who was addicted to drugs had written a dissertation on “Satan and Redemption in Paradise Lost”, in his days as a university student (p15). The same character is mesmerised by stars, “up there in the firmament”, another biblical term.

Whimsical at times, such as in in The Water Carrier, a story about a man who steals water from his mistress for a whole year by getting his own son to fill the tanker with water while he ‘services’ her in the house: “And the tart wouldn’t register because she was too busy being plumbed herself” (p39), we get a sound insight into Kinsella’s sense of humour. In this story we observe a man who seems to need to feel that he outsmarts the others in order to feel superior. So he ‘outsmarts’ his wife by having an affair, and ‘outsmarts’ the mistress by helping himself to her water. It is hard not to laugh at the characters, and not to admire the author’s fine ability to reveal characters that are so real, precisely because of their flaws. At the same time, Kinsella deals with much heavier issues, such as rape, in Abacus and The Tip.

His inventiveness is evident and his aptitude to choose elements that so accurately symbolise concepts - the condom that Stink, in In Necrospect, carries in his wallet, which is in fact how the story opens (p.161), gives a hint about what is still to come. In On Display, the train set that the grandmother gives Joey, her grandson, as well as the restored steam train in the town of Northam both work as powerful metaphors: “These towns needed to be connected. The lines like veins reaching out from the heart and back without ever finding it.” (p.51), and further, “No heart to leave, no heart to return to” (p.53).The analogy between the veins, and the heart, the description of the uselessness of a train that has little purpose, except that ‘now the kids play on it’ (p. 51) constitutes some of the most beautiful and poetic segments of the whole book. One can easily hear the chugging down the tracks in the same tempo as a heart thumping with life.

Equally powerful and sad is the life of the History Teacher in Shame. Here we have an Australian man of Chinese descent who shows serious signs of suffering discrimination. Perhaps that is the most powerful story because of its multiple layers. Kinsella achieved the delivery of a compelling message, reminding us that racism is still very much alive, and that it can leave wounds that are so deep, and haunt its victims to such an extent that some of them will choose to change roles and become the perpetrators - if you can’t beat them, join them. Mick Li lives in fear of bumping into one of his ‘red neck’ students, who refer to him as an “Asian Teacher”. Historical evidence is suggested in a newspaper article that Mick Li has got hold of and is pondering whether to use in class, in order to expose the level of prejudice that was overtly exercised against Chinese migrants: “Only allow the Chinese a footing in our town and district (and) morality and public decency will be grossly outraged” (p.43), the article read. All this happens inside the main character’s mind while he is in the supermarket doing the shopping with his wife and children. Kinsella manages to say all that with such class and economy of words, that there is no need for more information. Regardless of the fact that he chose ‘Chinese’ as the race in question, the end of the story is strikingly real and leaves the reader almost with a feeling of shame, which is the very title of the story. The son’s statement, “This is your shame, not ours” is not dissimilar to what some non-indigenous have expressed in their unwillingness to apologise to the First Nations of Australia, a theme that Kinsella does not leave out, not surprisingly: in Monitor, we have a white woman (Mary) who is ostracised because she ‘took up with Black Dan’ (p.83). To make the message plain clear, we are told that the other white farmers in the story did not approve of “Mary spending so much time in the sun. Not because of cancer (…) but rather because such white skin is to be treasured (…) an insurance against country’s merciless assimilations” (p.83).

John Kinsella’s knowledge about human nature is not restricted to an age range, not to gender. We have characters who are children, adolescents (the arsonist Monitor), young adults, as well as older one, each depicted with a high degree of realism. They are consistent with their flaws and reveal beauty, sadness, innocence, and many other human traits. In Binocular, the longest story, with 12 pages, Kinsella gives us another taste of fine poetry, as we learn about the beauty surrounding the two main characters through their senses: “The eyes, eating the scene, could never be fed enough” (p.136). Even a touch of Magic Realism is present in some of the stories, when for instance a young man is inexplicably found paralysed, “set like plastic”, and his genitals have mysteriously vanished: “between his legs is nothing - nothing at all. It is sealed over like plastic” (p.166). Last but not least, we have a man who never sleeps. Admittedly, I found myself wondering about the possibility of some autobiographical content: only a brilliant man, like I imagine Kinsella to be, would be able to fall asleep while staying awake (get quote), to get lost in daydream and in reading.

Hardly any character seems to be happy where they are. Even Mary, in Monitor is described as being “a prisoner in the open spaces” (p.84); Mick Li seems to live in fear of “the rednecks”; the main character in On Display, has “No heart to leave, no heart to return to”. Other characters move to another land, or visit other countries, to witness the discontent of locals, or to suffer discrimination themselves. Only the animals seem to be settled or at least to have come to terms: the eagles, in The Eagle, “patrolled the skies of the valley”. They seem to come in pairs, and then we are informed that ‘they mate for life’ (p.45) and “There, awaiting him, was his partner for life” (p.93-94). There are “crows along the wires” (p.80), the dogs are starving in the French Reunion Island in Feeding the Dogs, but that does not prevent a female dog from feeding her pups, despite “her udders sucked dry and desperate for nourishment” (p.126); and the lizards in Monitor, all permanent features of some god-forsaken town or some distant land, or somewhere else, isolated by the surrounding sea.

If I could change anything in the whole book, I would possibly end it with the story Monitor. The title of the story is mainly a reference to a type of lizard. In another example of Kinsella’s brilliance, the story ends with a fire that ‘took out’ half of the district” and “No two versions of the story made sense”. All that happened before is lost, burned by the fire and by the unforgiving sun, that had already condemned the main character with skin cancer. In the beginning of the story, monitors are followed and observed. After the fire, it is understood that every life has vanished. Kinsella then adds that “Parents carefully monitor their kids for skin cancers, but even so, they grow up with skins of goannas”. If that is not beautiful, genius literature, I don’t know what is.

Kinsella, John. 2015, Crow's breath / John Kinsella Transit Lounge Melbourne [Victoria]


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