Aqueduct press (2005)
Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was originally published in September 2006)
This book is the fifth volume of a series called “Conversation Pieces” – Conversation pieces is a perfect description. It is a small paperback, barely a hundred pages. It contains seven short works by Love. Is this slim volume science fiction/fantasy because several of the pieces are? Is it satire? Is it a tribute to Bridie King and emails home? I’m not sure that it’s any of these. I found myself in dialogue with the book trying to ascertain its identity and seek its meanings. It’s a lovely little volume and I would very much like to see what happens with other Australian writers when they produce Conversation Pieces.
In Love’s case I found this book lifted a veil and I was able to see a bit further into the writer at work. My favourite piece was “In Tribulation and with Jubilee: On Pilgrimage with Bridie King”. Its structure was a little ad hoc, but I wanted to know more about the places Love and King were visiting and the people they were meeting. But I am out of order. Let me talk about the pieces as they appear.
I entirely enjoyed “Alexander’s Feats”. I have been rereading the Medieval Alexander stories and this short story takes that same tradition of Alexander the Great Man who had wonderful exploits (he flew in the air and explored undersea and he visited the Amazons and he conquered the world) except it brings his wife in as a major player and turns it feminist. “Alexander’s Feats” is a series of tiny tales illuminating important facets of Alexander’s life. For instance, the first is “How Alexander gave his beloved wife Roxanne the secret of eternal youth, though he never could tell what it was that he did”. I had to read “Alexander’s Feats” twice, because Love gently snipes at women and men and at thoughts of immortality and about fashionable quests. Now that I have it open again in front of me (to type that long title) I may have to read it a third time. It’s that kind of story.
From a light-hearted set of mini-fables to a kick in the gut. “In the Shadow of the Stones” is quite different. It begins very personally. Second person. The story is about Queenie and her friends. Queenie worries about her friends’ disappearances and rehearses them in her mind. Her life mingles with her memories and dreams and I don’t know what is true. I cast off anchor and sail with Rosaleen Love on her narrative barque feeling a little pretentious but very adventurous.
Then comes “GoGo”. Each piece in this volume has Love’s style in common and a certain intellectual integrity, but not much else. Except this one and the one after it. They flow into each other more naturally. The funny thing is that the feeling of discontinuity in the rest of the volume is what makes The Traveling Tide so worth reading. The sharp incongruities of one story next to another turns individual stories into questions and thoughts that really make me want to go out and find someone else who has read it and sit down over coffee with the book in front of us and have a really good conversation. My conversation about “GoGo” would wonder why Love chose the voices of placoderms and scientists as miscellaneous narrators and whether the voices work in telling the story (I would argue with friends that the placoderm voice almost works but sounds terribly like an Australian politician at work; the science voice sometimes adds to the tale but sometimes it takes the reader right out of it). The real problem is that the narrative voice is a little too similar, no matter whether it is a placoderm or someone else. Rosaleen Love has a strong writer’s voice and in this particular instance it keeps a story moderately good rather than allowing it to be extraordinary.
“Ursula K. Le Guin and Therolinguistics” is a fake scientific paper and entirely fun. Here Love gets the voice right and anyone who has ever wondered at the whims of researchers will benefit from the results. It’s an idea taken from an idea of Ursula le Guin’s, and it is firm proof that spin-off stories can be worth reading. Acacia seeds as written on by ants are greatly undervalued as literature. The language of corals has been overlooked entirely … until now.
“Bubbles in the Cosmic Saucepan” puts us all in perspective. It talks about what will happen in the vastness of time, and talks about it in terms of what will happen topeople in the vastness of time. I found this the most difficult piece to enjoy out of the seven. There was nowhere I could engage or connect emotionally.
Next is “In Tribulation and with Jubilee: On Pilgrimage with Bridie King.” I love this. It’s a series of emails showing King and Love road-tripping together in search of music. Most roadtrip tales involve deep meaning and tremendous personal hardship or change. This involves people. It is Love at her most charming. It’s not speculative and it’s probably not even fiction. Rosaleen Love doesn’t explain if the emails are real. An explanation is irrelevant: it feels real.
“Once Giants Roamed the Earth” is a fitting finale. It’s a fable about how the world changes and how intelligent creatures describe that change. It’s neither the best piece in the book nor the worst but it rounds out the volume nicely. It reminds me that this book is all about opening conversations and not about closing them. The conversation that this story opens is our myths of how the world was formed, both scientific and other. Or it might be a pleasant discussion on how we find it important to tell stories to explain things. Or it might be an analysis of her style. Love deserves an analysis of her style sometime because it is quite distinctive. At her best her stories are unforgettable and at her worst they are merely pleasant. Not a bad way to be.
This book is a perfect beginning to a literary conversation.