Twelfth Planet Press (2009)
ISBN: 978 0 9804841 5 1
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, March 2010
A Book of Endings is the first short story collection from Deborah Biancotti; it contains 21 stories, 15 of which have been published before. Most were new to me, but I haven’t been reading much short fiction; the stories reprinted here first appeared in a variety of publications, most of which will be familiar to those who read Australian short fiction. So for some readers, a number of the stories will be familiar.
There’s no indication that this is intended as a “best of” collection, and indeed the fact that over a quarter of the stories are new militates against this. It is, I think, more intended to be representative of the range and quality of Biancotti’s work. In this, it works well; although it is clear that Biancotti has some favoured approaches and themes, A Book of Endings is quite a diverse collection. Importantly, the stories are all of high quality. Not everyone will like them all, or indeed choose the same favourites, but I think most readers will appreciate what Biancotti has achieved here.
This isn’t a light collection. I don’t recall a single story here that I found humorous, or would call light relief. That’s okay. But given that most of these stories are on the darker side, and many have quite a lot for the reader to think about, it’s not the sort of collection I can read quickly. I found I needed to read one or at most two stories, and then put the collection down for several days to enable me to absorb the impact of that story before I could consider reading another. They’re strong stories, with a lot to think about, and some of them have a strong impact on the reader.
This collection does suffer a little from a problem common to single author collections. If an author has a distinctive approach, or particular themes which recur in their work, then a collection can highlight these to the extent that sometimes the similarities can start to overwhelm the differences between stories. I found this particularly a problem in part one (End of Days). This section features a lot of stories with endings that are ambiguous, open to the readers’ interpretation, and indeed some entire stories that could be described that way. Although they are quite different – Biancotti doesn’t repeat herself – after a while I found myself noticing the ambiguity more than anything else, and longing for a nice concrete story and ending. In the end, the best solution was to put the collection aside and dip into it occasionally over a more extended period. That let me better appreciate each of Biancotti’s stories.
I also found that parts two and three were slightly more diverse, and so I wasn’t quite so overwhelmed by Biancotti’s liking for ambiguity. The stories in these sections still often leave a lot for the reader to interpret, but they often have a more concrete setting or a clearer end-point, giving the reader a little more to be going on with.
Biancotti’s use of ambiguity is deliberate; it’s not the cop-out of a writer who hasn’t bothered to think through her settings or plot or develop her characters. Instead, it’s the considered strategy of a writer who wants her readers to be involved in the stories, in what they mean and how they turn out. For me, this sometimes meant more of an intellectual engagement than an emotional engagement. Either way, this strategy is likely to work with all but the laziest reader.
There’s an Australian flavour to many of these stories – “Watertight Lies”, for example, relies strongly on the Australian outback setting to be convincing. For most, though, it’s a flavour, not a central point. Most of these stories could be set in a variety of places, and this universality should help a wide audience to engage with and appreciate these stories.
The range of stories here make it difficult to select any one or two as typical, and the overall quality makes it equally difficult to point to a stand-out or a favourite. Nor is there a story that stands out as particularly weak. I did, however, particularly appreciate “This Time, Longing”. It’s a strong and poignant story, and very well placed as the last in the collection. It’s a good note to end on; slightly more upbeat than some of the other stories, memorable, and haunting. It shows Biancotti at her strongest.
A Book of Endings is a strong collection, one that is well worth reading. For me, though, it’s not a collection to be read either quickly or straight through. It needs to be read over time, allowing yourself time to consider and absorb each story. You’ll appreciate both the individual stories and the entire collection more if you do this.