I don’t read short stories very often, but this book caught my attention with its unusual title – I ate a lot of Barramundi in Australia. And reading the title story in this collection definitely made me want to read more.
These stories are loosely connected by a theme of loss – sometimes loneliness, sometimes grief. It’s not an upbeat book, but it’s wonderfully written. These powerful stories are surprisingly short. Each story is like a portrait, a moment captured in time. You won’t know most of the details, but you’ll want to know more. It’s like looking at a photograph and wondering why two people are looking at each other the way they are, and what they were feeling at the time.
Some months, my book reviews sort of fall into a theme, and this month’s theme is going to be “what makes a book stay with you” – there are books that are great but you’ll forget them once you put them down, and then there are books you digest over time. You may see the characters in people you know, or the issues reflected in the news or whatever you’re dealing with. This is one of those books.
A white space settled between them. Before, these quiet moments had been an important part of their marriage. Cell-like, the minutes where neither spoke but both understood were leukocytes, a love-made immune system against the outside world. Shared silences surged in the body of their union, drawing them closer together as they read the newspaper, rocked the children to sleep, dressed in the dark. But now – now these silent moments jutted out conspicuously. Giant icebergs in the frigid calm, dangerous and foreboding.
Barramundi is made up of 12 stories, set in various parts of Canada, Australia, and the UK. There’s a very strong sense of place, but often I didn’t know where in the world I was – Burns subtly drops town names into her stories like Kirkcaldy, Cleethorpes and Ullapool, and after finishing the book I went back and looked those places up. Still, it’s not where that’s important; these stories could take place anywhere. Burns’ writing is so richly detailed, you can see yourself in these places. In one story, she goes into great detail about the architecture of a pub, and in another story it’s all about the island setting and the B&B. One story is set in a demolished town, another is simply two people painting a room. In each story, the emotional impact is deeply contrasted by or reflected in the physical setting.
It’s difficult to describe these stories, because the way the details unfold is part of what I liked so much about this book. Each one is like a small mystery – where are we, who are the characters, what are they struggling with. It’s like coming into the room in the middle of a conversation, where you know something important is going on, you just don’t know what.
Some of the stories that really stood out to me included “The Intruder”, where a woman on an isolated beach encounters her worst fear. In “The Mirror Man”, a woman sees an aging celebrity she once revered in a pub and has to build up the nerve to approach him. In “Phillip Turpin Gets a Girl”, a factory man discovers for the first time what it means to love. And “The Honeymoon”, where a couple’s marriage gets off to a very difficult start.
What is pretty amazing about these stories is how much Burns is able to convey, sometimes in a paragraph or a few lines of dialogue. For example, in this story of two young boys camping outside in their father’s tent:
Last week, at Dad’s new flat, Dad called Archie by the name of his new girlfriend’s son. Zack. Strange, the power contained in one word. It was a mistake, a simple thing said when Dad needed him to pass the butter, but the pain Archie felt at that moment was sharp and brilliant. It pierced through the day, through the ordinariness of eating breakfast, and blinded him with sorrow and boyish tears. He hadn’t wanted to visit this weekend. But, torturous as it was, Archie now welcomed the clarity of the sting; the memory of Dad’s stumble was a life raft, a floating marker in the wide sea of Mum’s silence and unspoken resentment. Archie held on to it when Mum’s distance became unbearable.
There are no clean endings in this book, no simple answers, which I appreciated. Each story resonated.
This is Burns’ first collection of short stories to be published, and in March 2013, it was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the UK’s only award for short story collections. According to her website, Burns has a Ph.D. in English literature, focusing on the writing of non-Maori settler women in New Zealand. She likes to write about isolated landscapes, and
“explore the interconnectedness of the human and surrounding topography.”