Isobelle Carmody

Allen and Unwin (2012 – originally published 1996)

ISBN: 978-1-74237-947-0

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

I had not read any of Isobelle Carmody’s short fiction before, although I was familiar with and had enjoyed a number of her novels. Good novelists are not always good short story writers (and vice versa), and it was with pleasure that I discovered that Carmody is as capable and assured in this medium as in the longer form. Like many collections of short stories, I found Green Monkey Dreams best read one or two stories at a time, dipped into over a fortnight or so. The writing style was easy to devour and I could have read the collection far faster; but the majority of the stories deserve time to settle, a little time for consideration, before you move onto the next.

As with many single author collections, it is a mix of stories originally published elsewhere and originals. Some date back to the early 1990s, and they appeared in a number of different publications. Even so, I hadn’t come across any before – the one story I thought I might have read before turned out to be original to this collection. Given the time frame and range of publications, however, I may be in a minority – some readers may well have read one or more of these stories before. Even so, the collection is worthwhile tracking down: the stories undoubtedly have a different impact read in conjunction with the other stories in this collection. More importantly, they are all of high quality.

These stories are set in an unspecified location; many felt somewhat British to me, but they may not read the same way to everyone. Carmody uses an interesting device to link a number of the stories – a recurring landmark, a tower said to be the resting place of a giant. It’s an interesting approach as there appears to be little else to specifically link most of these stories, but this recurring image (and the myth that accompanies it) gives a sense of connection. The other primary connection between these stories is that very few have a concrete ending. Most are ambiguous and could be read in one of two ways – either something fantastical has just happened, or a deeply deluded person has made a horrible mistake.  Some readers will no doubt cry “But what does it MEAN? What happened?” However, I found this a thought provoking approach that worked very well and gave extra resonance to many of the stories.

I also appreciated Carmody’s clever use of subtle details; while she doesn’t draw attention to these, they often have the capacity to change the interpretation you (the reader) put on the story. For example, the dress trimmed with feathers that Amerie brushes by in “The Red Shoes”. Is this the costume of a ballet dancer who appeared in, say, Swan Lake? Or is it the dress of a woman who shape changes into a bird? The reader’s assumption will color what happens next.

It is difficult to choose a favourite from this collection; it is of universally high standard and although the stories are generally quite different, they do share some thematic similarities – about being true to yourself, and perhaps about compassion for and kindness to others. There isn’t a bad story in here and it’s a remarkably even collection.  However, if pressed I would nominate “The Monster Game” and “Seek No More” as among the stories I thought the strongest.

This collection will not appeal to everyone; there are those who like their fiction more clearly spelled out. However, this is a well crafted collection full of thought provoking and involving stories. It will probably appeal more to those who incline towards fantasy than science fiction, but it deserves a wide audience. It is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read recently, for both its high quality and the sense of consistency between the stories – without ever feeling like they’re the same.