Lisa L Hannett

Ticonderoga Publications (2011)

ISBN 978-1-921857-01-0

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

Bluegrass Symphony is the debut collection from Lisa Hannett, a purpose-written suite of stories (with one reprint) that is quite extraordinary. “There’s something very strange going on,” writes Weird Tales editor Ann VanderMeer in her foreward, and it’s something of an understatement. The dozen stories are set in a mythical state that is a fractured mirror of the American South, where chickens are fortune-telling chooks and rodeo stars vie for wedded bliss once the minotaurs are sated, where Pegasus analogs share the trails with semi-trailers and sticks and stones can do far more than merely break bones.

Some of the stories bridge the hazy county line between fantasy and magic realism, where the extraordinary is rendered everyday in the eyes of the characters, making it all the more uncanny for the reader. Hannett, a Canadian we happily claim as an Australian, evokes a wonderful sense of place through the patchwork quilt of these stories, as told through the eyes and the vernacular of her characters. She brings a broad palette to the landscape – first person, second person, a mix of tenses – and all firmly anchored in the reality of her characters, so much so the reader risks saying ain’t and yerself for days after.

“Lisa has a way of twisting and turning all the conventions,” writes VanderMeer, pointing to the striking, gritty, vampire story ‘From the Teeth of Strange Children’. The comment applies equally to the Red Riding Hood re-imagining ‘To Snuff a Flame’. There are moments of great beauty, albeit often tinged with melancholy or even tragedy, as in one of the most simple and affecting stories, the opening story ‘Carousel’. It reminded me of Stephen King’s ‘The Last Rung on the Ladder’, which struck me a solid blow from the pages of Night Shift for its absence of the supernatural and its raw emotion. ‘Carousel’ has its dusting of magic, but it is sublime, and the impact of this familiar story told in an unfamiliar way is all the stronger for it.

Similarly, ‘Down the Hollow’ resonated with memories of another great short, Margo Lanagan’s ‘Singing My Sister Down’: here is a ritual involving farewell, horrible to the reader, commonplace to the characters, offering insight into the familiar-yet-foreign society while evoking such strong empathy for its powerless narrator. Hannett shares an enviable trait with both of these lauded writers, in that she relies on the story to do the work. The characters are living their lives; they don’t feel the need to fill in the blanks for the reader. And the reader never doubts that they can trust the writer to tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it – no asides or footnotes or info dumps required.

That faith is borne out in ‘Depot to Depot’, one of my favourites, in which the inexplicable is made clear only in the last scene. In ‘Commonplace Sacrifices’, the narrator is never named nor its nature explained: the situation simply is, and it is beautiful. Such assuredness in the storytelling is what helps makes the world of Bluegrass Symphony so palpable. Words are Hannett’s friends here, too. She knows when the story allows her to show her mettle with poetic description and when such language would be obtrusive. Restraint is not always the virtue of the debut writer, but Hannett understands its power, both in plot and prose.

The fantastical nature of the setting allows a degree of flexibility in the nature of the tales. For instance, there’s a touch of the Wild West in ‘The Wager and the Hourglass’ in which a young woman must ride hard with arrows in her side to outsmart a conniving mayor; ‘Depot to Depot’ finds its catalyst in a car accident; beauty pageants are given a sideswipe in the elegant and horrible ‘Forever, Miss Tapekwa County’.

These are stories set in a faux American South. There is sex and violence, religion and social bigotry, redneck families striving to hold on and others dissolving in solutions of broken dreams. Love, jealousy and desire are painted in sublime strokes. Sure, there are shapeshifters and hedge mages and self-important sorcerers, woods teeming with wolves and stalked by minotaurs, but it’s the everyday dreams and nightmares of the people that gives this collection its strength. As VanderMeer notes, Hannett’s characters “are alive with passion and fury and her worlds are teeming with excitement and movement. Her use of language can make even the most horrifying scenes beautiful, so that you won’t, you can’t, turn away”.

The collection, due out in August 2011, concludes with the author’s notes about the genesis of each story and how Hannett used music to set the tone for these slices of life. These notes provide insight into how disparate events – references in books, news items, a flat invaded by moths, the view from a car window – can inspire imagination. With an ability to transfer such simple things into stories of such simple power, Hannett is most definitely on song with this collection.

Keep an eye out next year for Midnight and Moonshine, Hannett’s collection co-written with Ticonderoga stablemate Angela Slatter, who impressed with last year’s collection The Girl with No Hands. Given the strength of their collections, plus the award-winning ‘The February Dragon’ short story printed in Ticonderoga’s Scary Kisses anthology, it promises to be an absolute stunner.