Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in July 2007)
My first thought when I saw the title to this book was: “Fantastical Journeys to Brisbane”?! I mean, it’s not the city that would have first sprung to mind for such an idea. Melbourne has gangland murders; Sydney has lots of people; Adelaide has all those churches, plus their murder rate; Hobart is so far south (can’t you see the Aurora Borealis from there?); Canberra you can buy porn (I have been told!); Darwin has people going troppo in the heat; Perth … yeah OK, Perth is about as likely as Brisbane… Anyway: each story in this anthology at least mentions Brisbane, or is set there, and after reading the introduction – about a writers’ masterclass at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival – it makes a bit more sense.
Kicking the set off is Tansy Rayner Roberts, with “The Pastimes of Aunties”. Now, I only have three aunties, and this made me regret not having a whole … gaggle? (troupe? pride?) of them. Here, the aunties go on an annual pilgrimage to Brisbane, from Hobart. One year, Auntie Chloe fails to return, and the narrator is sent to find her. It’s quite a funny story, and manages to be quite prosaic yet quite mysterious at the same time.
Next up is “Lost”, by Paul Garrety. I have to say that, after Roberts’ story, this one was a bit of a disappointment. It’s not particularly original: man has car accident, gets picked up by old-timer and taken to a little town … there are lots of ways that story could end, and this did not choose a unique one. That said, the writing is quite good.
Paul Haines’ “Where is Brisbane and How Many Times do I get there?” is very clever. There are lots of layers to the story; it’s a bit confusing at first, in an enticing sort of way, and is cleared up (mostly) quite nicely by the end. Not only is there a good story, but it’s set in an extreme Australia that could (at a stretch) exist in a few years’ time if there aren’t checks and balances. The story itself revolves around Paul, who is getting some weird phone calls in the middle of downloading dubious materials via other people’s accounts, and how the new Australia affects him.
“Freight”, by Tim Marsh, is about a man in charge of a freight company in a world where ‘Phase Doors’ are a common feature in transportation, although only for inanimate objects. And, for some reason, the Prophet is expected to turn up in Brisbane.
Another story set in an Australia where refugee camps and terrorism laws are strict is “The Refugee”, by Jason Nahrung. Here, a driver picks up a hitchhiker late at night … sounds like a dubious beginning, but the story certainly evolves in an unexpected way.
David L Kok’s “Hope is an Open Book” takes the reader back to 1898, and a ship setting out from London. A brother searching for a sister, people looking for a new start … it’s a sweet story, with engaging characters.
I really enjoyed “Parallel Lines”, by Sally Browne. Two people on road trips, meeting different people, thinking the same things – Kara and Marek are fun characters, the people they meet are pretty funny, and I loved the conclusion.
I can’t make up my mind about “Johari Compartments”, by Lea Greenaway. I liked the ideas, but there’s a part of me that thinks it all worked too easily. A young man decides to go on a journey, and ends up finding out more about the world and himself than he expects.
Chris McMahon’s “Journeyman” did not interest me particularly, unfortunately. Singers with special, undiscovered talents – having a connection to a supernatural world – just doesn’t work for me. The narrator, Vinnie, was fairly standard. I did like the supernatural elements, but they didn’t feature prominently enough for me to really engage in the story.
I grew up in Darwin, so a story about a cyclone was always going to interest me. “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Michele Cashmore, did just that – although thankfully I never had the experiences of this story! Amanda works on a resort island off Queensland, in the path of Cyclone Mary. The fear of death can make people do some weird things…
“The Book Pedlars”, by Vanda Ivanovic, doesn’t have much of a story. At its centre is a character walking to Brisbane, who encounters all sorts of weird people, most of whom are peddling something equally odd (like pendulums). Why this is happening is unclear. I found myself, as a reader, acting in much the same way as the narrator: I wandered through the story, bemused – not necessarily unhappy with the situation, but not sure about it either.
In Karin Hannigan’s “O’Carolan’s Ring”, an alien discovers that human music can offer something to her people after all. An interesting idea, although I would have liked to know more about the aliens themselves.
“Evenfall”, by Robert Hoge, really did nothing for me. A girl sitting by her father’s deathbed is a poignant occasion, but this story didn’t make very much of that. It’s a nice enough story, and I see where the fantastic element comes in, but it just wasn’t enough for me.
Tony Plank’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” is very funny. Billy Bong sets out for Brisbane, but to get there he has to go over the hills – and everyone knows that the people who live in the hills are a bit strange. Plus, there’s a drought, so the corn ain’t growing … so maybe someone needs to do something about that. Like maybe be a sacrifice.
I am often dubious about stories that are written exactly as the narrator would speak; eg: ‘youse’. However, it seems to work in Andrew Macrae’s “Northward” – it’s sometimes hard work to figure out exactly what he’s saying (it wasn’t a story I could skim-read), but it must have been liberating not to bother with apostrophes. I can’t help but think Macrae might be a fan of Transformers, because in this story the man and his truck are very close, and the truck seems in some ways to be sentient. I liked it.
The anthology finishes with “Transplant”, by Richard Pitchforth. Foster has just arrived in Brisbane, escaping a past that is never entirely filled in, although there are some revealing flashbacks. He progresses from one job to another, eventually ending up in one that suits him down to the ground. I really liked Foster: he seems like the sort of bloke you’d like to be friends with. I enjoyed his story, too.
Finally, let me just say that this is perhaps the only small-press anthology I have ever seen printed in hardback. It’s a very pretty blue colour, and the picture of Gulliver (I believe) on the front is entirely appropriate.