Back in 1969, American short story writer and novelist John Cheever complained of the underdog status of short stories, calling the short story ‘something of a bum‘. I bought Six Bedrooms after being exhorted by Charlotte Wood (winner of 2016 Stella Prize) to support the Australian book industry by buying more books; it turns out I am easily persuaded on such matters. Otherwise, I probably would’ve passed over this collection. Like a lot of folk, I don’t tend to gravitate to short story collections, and my last exploration into this territory with Hot Little Hands left me feeling a little meh. However, Tegan Bennet Daylight’s skill with this form has me recalibrating my position.
Six Bedrooms is an anthology of stories about young women growing up and specifically, young women growing up in Australia. Throughout the collection there are lovely passages that invoke an Australian childhood perfectly:
Later, we lay in our stomachs on the edges of their pool, our faces inches apart. I could see they way her hair looked when it was wet – dark underneath the blonde. And the blond slightly green, like the hair of all the kids who had pools.
I know exactly what she means by green/ blond hair in the summer, but I’d forgotten that I knew. And having lived in the UK, for 10 years, I could relate to this:
We’d been told that it would rain often in London but I hadn’t thought about the kind of rain it would be be. I was used to rain or no rain: a tropical torrent that swept out of nowhere, or days of incessant sunshine…. In London it just rained, greyly, endlessley, like a weepy friend, always sorry for herself.
There are also references to slumber parties and Cheezels, to the sweat of summer dripping down your school uniform into your pants, of possums on telegraph poles and sea pools. It was these kind of cultural references peppered casually throughout the collection that jolted my memories, as well as my empathy, about growing up as a girl in Australia.
One of the most powerful stories in this collection is ‘They Fuck You Up’, an obvious tribute to Phillip Larkin’s poem This Be the Verse about the damage parents do to their children. This story centres on Darcy, a young boy with big plans to run away from home – he has a packed suitcase permanently stashed under his bed – and Noor, his increasingly reluctant girlfriend. As the story gathers pace, we learn how Darcy’s dad exerts control over the whole family:
Darcy’s father stepped forward and seized Darcy’s hand as it brought his spoon up to his mouth, so that the milk spilt on to Darcy’s t-shirt….
‘You can wait til lunchtime’.
Darcy stood there, breathing heavily, wiping the milk off his t-shirt.
‘If you don’t have the common courtesy to join us for breakfast then you don’t deserve it’. His father was sweating, cold waxy beads of it on his white, clean shaven face.
Increasingly, we see Darcy exhibiting the same patterns of damaging behaviours towards Noor as Darcy’s dad does (‘Savagely, he texted Noor again’). The powerful message here is that when it comes to violence against women (like so many things), there is a circularity and inevitability of learned behaviours.
While Hot Little Hands is receiving international attention (see for instance, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Girlhood), I would easily bypass it in favour of Six Bedrooms. Whilst it covers similar terrain as Abigail Ulman’s collection, Six Bedrooms is subtler and less destructive. There are still bombshell moments- the last sentence in one story signalling the presence of incest, or in another, the death of a best friend from cancer (‘At the moment of his death she had seen him turning purple, quite clearly, so aware was she of every change. Now he was a dull blue’). But these are balanced with blossoming moments of romance, or tense, but hopeful, family reunions.
In my original review of Hot Little Hands, I decided that my uneasiness with the book was about its lack of any redemption. But I’m now also wondering whether it’s to do with my age. Tegan Bennett Daylight has been plying her trade for a lot longer than Ulman. Way back in 2002, she was named one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. Perhaps the rough edges have been smoothed over in Six Bedrooms, making it more palatable. Or perhaps, as a more balanced observer of life, she’s produced a better book.