Kay McKenzie Cooke
The Wandering Nature of Us Girls by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, 2022), 127pp, $29.99
To read Frankie McMillan’s The Wandering Nature of Us Girls is to read a collection of short fiction about the familiar and the factual constantly being reimagined, or at least given a twist of the fantastic stirred with a swizzle stick. Even before you open the book, the cover’s subtle, sparkly, pleating effect evokes a trick of the light, a puzzling refraction, a sense of things mischievously folded in on themselves. It’s like a warning. Approach this dizzying assortment at your own peril: do not expect any safety net under the flying trapeze acts it performs.
The opening story, ‘Magdalene, the sister we could not fathom’, introduces us straightaway to McMillan’s narrational sleight of hand. We are told that everyone who saw Magdalene as she strolled down the street, ‘puffing on a smoke, fish over her shoulder, fell silent as she passed. Which is just the way Magdalene liked it.’
Aspects of the writing are clearly grounded in McMillan’s memories of her childhood and family or else taken from found accounts. The strange, the quirky and the dark elements in her fiction often seem inspired by anecdotes reminiscent of those in old-fashioned books on Lives of the Saints, where martyrs are responsible for miracles. Sometimes the fantasy is reminiscent of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, as in the story, ‘Accounts of girls raised by swans’:
‘We swim like we are missed, we swim like we are bridled, we swim under bridges and when the boats come, we swim through scum, through ropes, we swim like rich people, always laughing.’
Language is a form of poetic revelation so that characters’ accounts of the askew or the odd suggest a kind of naive wonder at the strangeness of life. The story ‘The elephant in the room’, for example, opens with the statement: ‘My husband is a choker.’ The narrator then goes on to reveal that he cannot eat certain foods because ‘the flap in his throat is faulty.’ This story concludes:
‘Outside, wind ploughs through the flaxes, the tree ferns wave and as we lie there in a sweet tangle, I imagine he is thinking of the latest story he will tell about his flap. But instead he turns to me, ‘We are so lucky,’ he says, ‘so very, very lucky.’
The promise implied in ‘Magdalene, the sister we could not fathom’, to expect the unexpected, remains unbroken throughout the book. These stories and verses not only startle but also hint at an implicit sense of compassion for the marginalised and those, especially women, who are required to fight or indulge in subversive, self-defensive tactics in order to remain standing. As ‘Romance in the lower and upper atmosphere’ puts it:
‘Despite my love, the achy love I have for him that rises, tugs me into his gravitational field, despite all that, I see something sick and wounded I need to outrun.’
Part of McMillan’s strategy is to show how moments, ordinary and normal (at least on the surface), pulse with the imminent potential to go awry, to blow up, to grow monstrous; these are episodes doomed to hatch into something demonic or at least unsettling and weird. Yet in each tall tale, McMillan leaves clues that point to a nugget of truth, whether gleaned from something she recalls or a fact discovered in a newspaper or online. These realities serve as an anchor, preventing what is important and identifiable from completely sailing off and disappearing into a mystifying strangeness of complete conjecture and speculation. In the story ‘Steadfast’s breath’:
‘The three women yell his name. ‘Steadfast! Steadfast!’ I’m thinking Mormons. Serial wives. Then I’m wondering if there’s something else going on here because this long-haired fella is a long way from beating any record. You don’t know, none of us knows what goes on behind closed doors.’
The Wandering Nature of Us Girls is a book divided into five sections; each section is divided by an attractive, starling egg-blue page and contains poems and prose connected to a theme or idea. These themes range from domesticity to fairground fantasia; from relationships, familial or otherwise, to reimagined expeditions carried out by solo explorers or adventurers; from subversive to quixotic happenings; from myths and fables to Kafkaesque descriptions of freaks of nature—an example of the latter being the story with the self-explanatory title, ‘The boy who grew antlers.’
The voices and points of view of the narrators also vary. At times it can feel like being under the spell of a totally untrustworthy narrator, as in ‘How we scare ourselves’:
‘Already I have Ricky blindfolding her with tape, tying up her wrists, saying, ‘Honey if you really love me keep walking towards the cliff. Until I say stop.’ And my poor love-smitten sister starts walking towards the precipice, the ends of the red tape fluttering behind her.’
Although the careful formalism of the writing is undeniable, at the same time, McMillan often manages to produce a freewheeling and surprising inventiveness within her yarns. Consequently, it is writing without borders; writing that shimmers and bends like a mirage. This, in turn, establishes a sense of discombobulation: we are never quite sure what is coming next. The introductory sentence to ‘The fame of Mr Whippy and the crayfish’ states, ‘We last saw Mr Whippy out at sea.’ And an excerpt from the story, ‘Springing along in trick shoes’, suggests a rug being gently pulled out from under us as readers, much like characters do to one another.
‘I forgot to tell her the uplifting part: that the trick shoes were a yellow colour so if you walked through a field of daffodils you wouldn’t know where your feet ended and the flowers began.’
Through engaging descriptions, often conjured by utilising the accessible nature of idiomatic speech (she obviously has a good ear for the vernacular), McMillan can bag a character in very few words. Especially evocative for this older reader is the description in ‘We, the school dental nurses, 1960’ of the dental nurses in ‘our cardigans tulip red, our feet rubber-soled’.
Humour certainly adds to the charm of this book. The very funny story ‘Wishbone’ centres around the transporting of a cooked chicken to a family gathering:
‘And all the while I was thinking it was so typical of her to say dressed chicken instead of stuffed chook.’
McMillan’s writing could be summarised as a sense of enchantment paradoxically interlaced with a sense of earthiness, creating a clever counterpointing. Nature is often the background, naturally and effortlessly providing light relief for the sombre story or sober poem. As the author writes in ‘Hawk-eyed girls’, offering perspective:
‘And that’s why we leaned wide from the window, poked out our heads, testing the night air, listening to the waves, the rumbling drift wood, all the broken things that landed on the shore.’
Sometimes an underlying uncertainty is abruptly employed to put off-kilter an otherwise familiar and cosy domestic setting, with family members suddenly facing fear and fracture, as the story ‘Branching out’ artfully does:
‘And the second mistake, Papa says, standing on the veranda looking down at the glow in the paddock, is that some silly bugger hasn’t stamped out the fire.’
Fundamental, too, to the effect of this book is the resonance of its poetry. McMillan’s skill as a poet adds considerable impact, especially in terms of pacing and construction. Some of the prose, if not all, falls into the flash fiction genre. To master what this genre demands—concise writing, perfectly formed and ending with conclusions loaded with the capacity to startle—McMillan compresses language but does so without losing overall control of well-told narratives.
This small but mighty book is packed with memorable, idiosyncratic characters, none of whom are rich. It highlights the divide between the well-off and the not-so-well-off, and it embroiders its depictions with the coloured threads of the real and the surreal, the tender and the harsh. It is about struggle, survival, small triumphs, and the ironic and bittersweet humour of disenfranchisement.
McMillan’s The Wandering Nature of Us Girls gives its subjects, such as children, people who stray from what is perceived as normal, lovers, battlers and those who live on the edge, a voice. Despite the title’s hint that the writing contained within may well be of a wavering, wandering nature, this is, in fact, strong, definite writing that stands resolute in what it sets out to achieve: another way of looking, another way of seeing.
‘I imagine he’s walking / to get away from the trickiness // of language. A stiff breeze to carry / away any stray vowels // so I won’t ask him in. Let the mothers float, / their arms splayed to the sky, // let him find the rhythm of his own sure feet.’ (From the poem ‘Alan Bennett striding over the shore’)
KAY MCKENZIE COOKE is writing Muttonbird Tree House, her third Murihiku novel, while also developing poems for a fifth poetry collection. She lives in Dunedin.