Ruin and Other Stories by Emma Hislop (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 192pp, $30
I sometimes wonder why short story collections do not have the popularity of novels. As a writer of short fiction, I have had a number of people say to me, completely unsolicited, ‘I don’t really like short stories.’ I think one of the reasons for the disinterest, or in some cases, discomfort, with this form is that it doesn’t offer an ‘escape’ in the same way as a novel. The period of immersion in the fictional world is shorter. And, often, it involves a lot of psychological or emotional work. Rather than a way to get lost, the short story offers a way to probe a situation or idea. Reading a collection of stories can therefore be challenging and difficult. Instead of a slow burn, rising tension, it is conflict after conflict after conflict.
But ultimately, I feel it is an experience that grants rewards not offered by other forms. Ruin by Emma Hislop is definitely a collection that fits this characterisation. It is not an easy read in any sense of the word. The title suggests the overall tone: things going badly, people, relationships and communities in crisis. It is not a feel-good book, but a good book for exploring uncomfortable things. In going into difficult subjects, the stories suggest windows, ways out, alternative possibilities.
Stylistically, there are some interesting features. Hislop’s prose style is original, meandering and at times disjointed. This approach allows big information to almost hide among trains of mundane thoughts. One example, from the story ‘Mistaken’, centres on a teacher whose work and personal lives are colliding messily:
She did the register, while the girls finished off their homework. Rob texted R U ok? She checked Facebook and Instagram, turned her phone to silent. There were so many hours left. Better to think about Elias, about the mess her life was in, and how she could change it. She was running out of time to have a baby. She kept her phone out, waiting for Elias’s reply, but there wasn’t one.
The momentary mess of the morning and the fallout from a recent breakup is pierced through by the blunt, biological statement about fertility. Throughout the collection, such juxtapositions between small and big and medium-sized topics give the stories a greater emotional heft: there is something that comes across as shocking.
Another stylistic technique that Hislop masters is the downbeat ending. The same story, which has gone to some pretty dark places, ends: ‘For a few seconds, Caitlin was sure the girls’ puffer jackets looked brighter, lit up, flashes of colour against the night. But then they got dull again.’ Caitlin has been a minor character in the story, and it is interesting that we end with her seemingly trivial thoughts. The brightness and then dullness could signify many things; the narrator doesn’t need to elucidate exactly what all these things are. In ‘Housewarming’, Tae, who is recovering from a miscarriage and dealing with jealousy towards her husband’s dance partner, unpacks boxes after a party. The story finishes with an image of Tae lifting out a fabric lamp: ‘It had an hourglass shape and wooden base.’ The simple description of an object underscores the lack of resolution for the characters. It feels a little like the writer having a play with narrative expectations, deliberately frustrating any desires for closure. Ending on an image of a lamp inevitably calls to mind the ‘little lamp’ in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Dolls’ House’. But this lamp feels a lot more hopeless.
One of the recurring themes in the collection is a failure of connections between women: sisters Grace and Mattie in ‘Ruin’, Vivienne and her daughter in ‘A Safe Place’, female friends in ‘The Game’ and ‘Red Flags’. Tensions are pushed further in ‘Doctor Ink’, which focuses on the connections and disconnections between a woman and her former employer, the woman whose husband she has had an affair with, and now lives with. Sometimes these failures are simply tragic, as in ‘Ruin’: ‘Why had Mattie left when she was needed the most? She must have her reasons. Was Grace the reason? Why wasn’t she here?’ Other times, they are more complicated, as in ‘Doctor Ink’: ‘It occurred to her then that Kaylie probably knew her better than anyone … It actually mattered to her; Kaylie mattered. Kaylie was a part of her.’
Themes, like threads, bind, and another recurring theme is parenthood, pregnancy and childbirth, particularly concerning women nearing the end of their reproductive years getting pregnant or wanting to be pregnant. There is Neve, who is ‘running out of time to have a baby’, Tae, who has miscarried, and Naomi, whose pregnancy at age 38 is termed ‘geriatric’. And there is Anahera in ‘Shadow’, who has been through three failed rounds of IVF and is nearing the cut-off age for funded treatment. All of these women experience tragedies of some kind, but their experiences are varied. These are complex issues, and the ways they are depicted never feel simplistic or didactic.
Men who are interested in underage girls and children also recur in these stories. In ‘Previous Selves’, Faith discovers her partner’s interest in young girls after they have moved across the world together. In ‘Mistaken’, a popular male staff member works at a girls’ school for all the wrong reasons. In ‘A Safe Place’, Vivienne deals with the fallout after her husband is convicted on child pornography charges, admitting he has ‘seen pretty much everything’. Again, these difficult subjects are explored in varied ways, reminding us that while gendered power dynamics are very real, perpetrators and victims are complex, nuanced human beings.
I experienced ‘Missing’ as the book’s most harrowing story. Naomi, who is pregnant, has dropped level 4 te reo after three sessions. ‘She wished they could microchip people with te reo. The only chip she carried was one of shame because she couldn’t speak it.’ She struggles to take her ‘Calmbirth’ antenatal education classes seriously. As for many first-time parents, Naomi’s birth plan goes awry. Crucially, hospital staff go against her wishes and incinerate the whenua. The fallout from this act of malpractice becomes disastrous. I read this story primarily as an allegorical one. The schisms between Naomi and her partner, the son of ‘ten pound Poms’ who is learning te reo and sticking names on everything in the house, the loss of the whenua and the resultant difficulties, the outcome for mother and baby, all go beyond the individual characters, addressing colonisation and its ongoing effects. The whenua takes on both its meanings, as placenta and as alienated land, the earth Naomi is determined to return to.
Land alienation comes up again in the final story, ‘Sweet on the Comedown’. In this story, a group of women who have all been involved in some kind of scandal or misfortune find themselves working at a weird country house with no mobile reception. ‘Simone had had an argument with one of her clients whose housing development project had been opposed by iwi. They wanted their land back, and Simone wanted them to get it back. She’d sat on a rock on the road, refusing to move. The client had sued Simone for a conflict of interest.’ There is a massive sense of foreboding here. What is going on in this house? What is its purpose? What will these women do? While most of the stories are grounded in social realism, ‘Sweet on the Comedown’ and ‘Scarce Objects’—another meditation on colonisation and misogyny—delve into surreal or fantastical territory.
Is there anything beyond ruin in Ruin? Are there any shreds of hope? For me, the most hopeful story was ‘Shadow’, set during the Covid-19 pandemic when alert levels were fluctuating. It’s interesting seeing how writers have approached the subject of the pandemic over recent years. This story reminded me that we have collectively been through something traumatic on a spiritual as well as a physical level. Anahera, the central character in ‘Shadow’, has experienced the death of her father during Covid and has been unable to give him a proper funeral. Anahera’s mother has advanced dementia and lives in a rest home. Her partner, life coach Jon, is unsupportive. She has lost three pregnancies. But there is something about Anahera’s relationships with the dog, Shadow, and the social worker, Shaun, that highlights the humanity present throughout all this trauma.
Anahera is a doctor at a hospital on the frontline during the ravages of Covid. To Jon’s distaste, Shadow sleeps in their bed, anxious if left alone. Anahera is fundamentally a caregiver. Her love and care for her dog reflects her relationships: with the father she has lost several times over, the mother who no longer remembers her, the child she is unable to have. This, and the collegial connection with Shaun, feels like a glimmer on the horizon. Ultimately, it is our connections: to people, to land and the things we love, that sustain us.
AIRINI BEAUTRAIS is a Whanganui-based writer and teacher. Her collection of stories, Bug Week (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2020), won the 2021 Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction at the Ockham NZ Book Awards.