Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Craig Gamble (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021), 478pp, $35
‘Maybe I could sew my legs together,’ Loretta muses, wishing for a tail. Penned-on lines or her own rashy, eczematic skin could pass for scales. Sniffing, dripping, allergy-ridden Jeremy is a likely candidate for the required slimy hagfish; a sickening Mrs Wilberforce (a nod to Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain) is Loretta’s longed-for mermaid kindred spirit. This is the alarming, yet vividly drawn cast of ‘Scales, Tails and Hagfish’, Octavia Cade’s story of an insistent, angry, self-proclaimed mermaid that sets the pace for this collection of fourteen long short stories with unflagging brio.
As editor Craig Gamble, publishing manager at Te Herenga Waka University Press (formerly Victoria University Press) writes, Middle Distance was born out of a conversation around the smoko table. Like its predecessor publication, Monsters in the Garden: An Anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen (three authors appear in both books), this collection is built on the legacy of the long-running literary magazine Sport, which folded last year. But there are important differences. Monsters in the Garden had the air of an anthology, featuring past writers, including Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and an extract from an unpublished novel by Margaret Mahy, as well as contemporary writers such as Pip Adam, Kirsten McDougall and Lawrence Patchett. It showcased previously published works as well as new ‘unseen’ submissions.
In Middle Distance, the contributor list is taken largely from writers associated with the press or the university’s writing school (as in A Game of Two Halves: The Best of Sport 2005–2019, with the excellent and very sporty cover image by Te Herenga Waka graduate Sarah Wilkins).
Here, the writing is all new and the form is limited to that of the long short story. This longer length—around 10,000 words compared to the usual 3000-4000 words of a short story—walks a difficult middle path, explains Gamble, between ‘the sharp joy of a shorter work, and the cumulative pleasures of a novella or novel’. It gives time for readers to engage with characters more deeply; it provides more space for setting and world-building, ‘but it still needs to be done with an immediacy that keeps the story moving’.
Encompassing realism and fantasy, historic narrative and contemporary New Zealand experience, the stories in Middle Distance, on the whole, rocket along, reflecting a broad editorial brief and a sense of bravado that holds the reader to the page. As Gamble writes:
I was keen to be surprised and challenged, to read the unexpected.
The unexpected is evident in the sheer breadth of time and place, both real and fictitious. Tropes of fairytales and folklore, haunted rooms, wise travellers, astrological readings and religious rituals figure large in this collection. ‘Basil and the Wild’ by Rem Wigmore is a tender tale of the friendship between a family outcast and a man-turned-beast, drawing on medieval literature (there is a nod to King Oberon) to illustrate the violent ramifications of mob-based social prejudice. Echoing the mermaid (or mer-something) theme from the first story, Kathryn van Beek’s superb ‘Sea Legend’ takes a what-happens-at-sea-stays-at-sea directive to haunting lengths. ‘Bycatch is a fact of life,’ novice fisherman Hemi is told. ‘No sense being hauled over the coals for it.’ Lurching between swelling sea and sky, the eponymous fishing trawler with its faulty CCTV system hauls in a desperately endangered bycatch of the fantastical order, more aligned to Homer’s Odyssey than MPI’s list of protected species. The story culminates in a nail-biting scene in which Hemi decides to take action.
Sam Keenan’s perfectly pitched ‘Afterimages’ follows Ruth, a stage 1 Chem student devising a plan to fade from the visible world. Keenan holds her story to the scientifically plausible. There is growing evidence for unseen dark matter (the story is set just post World War II) and disappearing is a logical escape route from the pain of her mother’s mental decline, her brother’s absence, the creepy attention of ‘Sir’:
I inhale with almost divine satisfaction, because after today there’ll be no Sir walking up quietly behind me in his office, no feeling of his fingers between my shoulder blades as he plucks at the clasp of my bra. There’ll be no hearing that Godawful “heh” noise …
These more speculative works are interspersed with quieter stories grounded in an identifiable New Zealand context. In J. Wiremu Kane’s ‘Ringawera’, three deaths—one natural, one accidental, one in desperate fear—prompts Rua to confront his sense of cultural and sexual isolation as gay and as Māori.
More frequent, and most compelling, are the stories tracking the fallout of fractured families. Anthony Lapwood’s ‘Around the Fire’ and Maria Samuela’s ‘The Promotion’ are both finely crafted layerings of parental abandonment and risky reunion repeated across two generations (and in Samuela’s story, two countries). In ‘Backwaters’, Emma Sidnam charts an historic tale of migration of a young Chinese couple hefting their baggage of dreams from a village in China to a market garden in a faraway land—the touch is light, the threads of flight tangled and complex.
Some of these stories, as in Kane’s ‘Ringawera’ and Jack Barrowman’s ‘The Dead City’, hold the promise of a longer novel, as if these 10,000 words are a test ground for a more expansive work. Others have the haunting, open-endedness of a short short story. The most rewarding, however, are those perfectly shaped to fill the space of this longer form without sacrificing the immediacy of the plot.
Vincent O’Sullivan wields his formidable storytelling skills in ‘Ko tēnei, ko tēnā’. He sets the stage for a risqué Victorian drama in the shabby grandeur of the rural estate of ‘Mad Sir Jack’, now left to two sons—one clever and reclusive, the other a sharp-eyed adventurer. But with barely pause for breath the story pivots to an illicit and horrific trade in colonial New Zealand, with the allure and intrigue of a beautiful half-sister of unconfirmed ancestry. Set against this complex family background, the story reveals at its heart the hollow hunger of a self-entitled Englishman, and the swift revenge of the two women sequestered within the estate. It is a tour de force, using all the elbow room offered by the long short story form to take the plot to its inexorable end.
Samantha Lane Murphy’s ‘Like and Pray’ is a disturbing and utterly original evocation of parental grief. Kelly’s response to the death of her young daughter is warped by the faith of her evangelical church, here led by Pastor Paul Blanston, ‘a handsome man, all the girls could agree on that’, and promoted through the treacherous endorsements of Facebook posts. It’s uncomfortable, the author only slowly revealing the reasons for Kelly’s seemingly unemotive response, a salutary reminder of the enduring power of Orwell’s ‘Groupthink’ and the echo chambers of social media.
At the end of the book, David Geary’s ‘The Black Betty Tapes’ builds a riotous tower of a story from a series of archived transcripts, interviews and recordings, mostly between an ex-MI5 bodyguard and the Queen. In this incomplete, conjectural space, Charles is hiding out in a Welsh mine, ‘H’ and ‘W’ crash a chopper, the invented Irish Islamic State is a story gone viral, Shakespeare has been exhumed and the Queen, now a self-proclaimed QEIII, is an unhinged, war-mongering, Tarot-viewing, empire-restorer (in quizzing her interlocuter about the various players acting her part on screen, she reminds her bodyguard that, ‘I’m an actor too’). It is funny, fast-paced and, although I could not find the promised accompanying playlist on Spotify, cheerfully frenetic.
Readers of novels tend to hunker down for the long haul. Short stories are easier to read but easier to put down. When American writer George Saunders asked then fiction editor of The New Yorker Bill Buford what he liked about Saunders’ latest short story, his reply, as described in Saunders’ 2021 book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, was predictably laconic:
Well, I read a line. And I like it … enough to read the next.
Claiming a space between the hurry-along momentum of the short story and the more digressive path of the novel, these long short stories refuse to loosen the grip on the reader’s attention for a second–or a line.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist and writer in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She has been books and culture editor for the NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She was awarded MPA journalist of the year in 2020 and was runner up as reviewer of the year in last year’s Voyager Media Awards. Her recent book, Ravenscar House: a Biography (Canterbury University Press), explores the story behind a new purpose-built house museum in Ōtautahi Christchurch.