Book Review: Short Stories: Tim Winton, Julie Orringer

Two short story collections, two very different reactions.

The Turning: StoriesThe Turning: Stories by Tim Winton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of seventeen stories, set in the fictional Western Australia whaling town of Angelus, shows ordinary people searching for redemption in their broken, mismatched, violent and tedious lives. Tim Winton, with raw and beautiful prose, asks you not to flinch or to forgive but to witness these characters and their choices, and to draw your own conclusions about the future of their souls.

Nine of these stories focus on the Lang family. In no chronological order, we see the turmoil that besets the Langs, mostly through the eyes of Vic, as an adolescent, a young man, a father and husband. By shifting chronology, narrative voice and character perspective, Winton gives us a 360 view of a community, a family and a man.

Other stories intertwine, as well. The gut-twisting The Turning show us characters as adults- the broken bully Max Leaper and his wife, Raelene, who is searching for a way out of herself. We then encounter Max and his brother as boys in Sand and again as adults in Family, where redemption arrives in a flash of copper hide and gnashing teeth.

It’s difficult to recommend individual stories, particularly when so much is to be gained from reading the sum. Each moved me, though the longer stories, such as Boner McPharlin’s Moll; Small Mercies; Long, Clear View and Commission resonated more deeply because of greater character development.

Tim Winton, in novel and in short story, writes about families. Neither politics nor history lessons interest him. Winton writes to show the extraordinary within the most ordinary. He has a particular brilliance with the perspectives of children, capturing their wisdom and sensitivity and showing them at play and in pain, with tenderness and clarity.

The writing in this collection is more personal than Cloudstreet, his epic family tale, and is completely absent of the mysticism that shimmers at the edges of The Riders and Cloudstreet. It is natural, flowing and flawless.

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How to Breathe UnderwaterHow to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Orringer writes with confidence, but without much passion. These nine stories are perfectly constructed, and the author has a keen ear for natural dialogue, but with few exceptions, I was not moved by the characters or their dilemmas.

In each, whether the voice is first or third person (even, in the case of Note to Sixth-Grade Self, second person), the protagonist is a young girl or a coming of age adolescent. Each faces a significant loss- either of a loved one or of innocence. Very high marks to Pilgrims, a subtle homage to Lord of the Flies, and Note to Sixth-Grade Self; these stories spill out the inherent, almost innocent cruelty of children. Shrugs to Stars of Motown Shining Bright and The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones, both centered on characters discovering and exploring their sexual selves, and When She Is Old and I Am Famous, which was entertaining but empty.

Less than the themes, which did not always resonate with me, was Orringer’s writing. It’s very modern and linear, clean and sharp. I admire this, but there was no place to escape and rest for a moment. The Isabel Fish and Care came very close, as the characters slipped quietly into depression or a drug-induced high. But those weren’t places where I wanted to linger.

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Book Review: Cloudstreet, Tim Winton

CloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim Winton is a most spiritual writer. It’s shameful in a world of bloated, overachieving prose that screams to the top of best-selling lists that someone as connected to the forces of nature and the foibles of man should be so little known.

Cloudstreet chronicles the aching, bitter, crude, and sweet fortunes of two Australian families, the Lambs and the Pickles, from 1944-64. Brought together by need, greed, tragedy and a mysterious Other, the families’ stories collide and spring away over the years. They live in the same rotting mansion, separated by thin walls and different ambitions. The families’ regard for each other alternates between disgust and wonder, passion and forgiveness as their children and their backwater state of Western Australia grow up and away.

Winton tells the classic tale of messy, intolerable families- how each is a unique disaster and a treasure. But this is no ordinary familial saga. Winton’s writing is in a class of its own. He is fearless — calmly and confidently taking the reader from literal, linear storytelling to a subtle state of magical realism.

This is an unforgettable book, both for its content and its style. I was struck by the universality of his themes and the recognizable nature of his characters. These working class families would be at home in Appalachia, the timber forests of Oregon, the fishing villages of the north Atlantic Coast. Mr. Winton must be a national treasure in Australia. We’d do well to show him a larger welcome mat here in North America.

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