This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan

Brisbane author Amanda O’Callaghan has crafted a thoughtful, darkly-hued work in This Taste for Silence (UQP). This, her debut collection of short stories seems to be set in both Australia and the UK.

The cover, with its still-life arrangement of three flying porcelain ducks and a comfortable but empty (apart from a painting) chair in front of a cracked wall, evokes the layers and depths found in silences. The domestic scene could offer security, or this image may suggest the impossibility of escape from a house that is a prison. The title reflects the sensory, elliptic nature of the writing. The stories range from micro fictions to longer tales.

Most of the protagonists seem to be quite ordinary people but many of them are fearful – of relationships, sickness and death. Neighbours in too-close, sad and flimsy houses uneasily infiltrate each other’s lives. Relationships are uncomfortable, secretive.

Characters are etched without elaboration to reveal their essence. In ‘The Golden Hour’ Helen’s husband Phillip is described by others as a “moderate” but Helen hears his words “slip into my mind the way a quiet person might enter a room. If that shadow touches the side fence, I’ll know you’re guilty.” He constantly looks for signs and terrifies and repels his wife.

Here, as in a number of the stories, the author is adept at creating a voice that lures then punches. The tone is calm but quickly chills.

In the first story ‘Widow’s Snow’ an older woman considers embarking on a new relationship but discovers something deeply disturbing about the man. In ‘The Turn’ a nurse euthanises his patients and others. ‘Things’ begins as a slice of life but unveils an unhealthy, sad way to live. Jennifer becomes fearful, “this house I had reshaped into something terrible, was contracting against me.”

Regret and fear are tangible throughout the stories. Two women joined in marriage, the mother and the new wife, are afraid of each other in ‘The New Bride’. Fear is personified in ‘These Ordinary Nights’. “Sometimes fear sits on our bed. It scoops a hollow with its bulk that I cannot smooth away.”

A few of the characters have cancer and Mr Gregory in ‘Legacy’ inveigles two young men into assisting his death. He is a civilised man who offers tea in a china tea-set but asks too much of the brothers. The changing viewpoint between them reveals the never-ending implications of the act.

Some of the stories fold into one another, particularly those set on farms, where death hovers. One of the most memorable stories, ‘The Memory Bones’ begins benignly with Grandma swimming in the dam with her granddaughter. Her manner changes abruptly and it is not until many years later that Geraldine discovers the horrific truth under the water.

‘The Painting’ is another haunting, unnerving work. It is reminiscent in a sense of The Picture of Dorian Gray but is set in a quintessential Australian setting. A painting appears to foreshadow death.

The story ‘All the Perfumes’ seems revitalising with memories of rain falling on dry farmland. But other smells underlay the fragrant lemon myrtle scent. This story encapsulates Amanda O’Callaghan’s signature style, a style of honed sensory evocations and unforeseen revelations. She is a powerful new talent, writing with a feathered pen with a sting in its nib.

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