‘Legacy, Memorialisation, Grief and Loss’ – Amanda Curtin’s ‘Inherited’

I approach collections of short stories with trepidation. Not because I dislike the short story form (quite the contrary) but because of how emotionally taxing I find collections. At the end of a novel I need time to pause, reflect and, sometimes, grieve. I need to gather up what I will take from the novel as a writer, reader and human being and let it percolate through me. For this reason I can never commence one novel immediately after finishing another. I need three or four days to let my responses simmer and settle. The short story collection requires that I undergo this process at the end of each story rather than at the end of the book. It causes me a sort of emotional whiplash. Unless I’m in peak psychological condition (sadly, a rarity) I tend to pass over collected works of short fiction.

That said, I was such a fan of Amanda Curtin’s 2008 novel The Sinkings that I could not resist her new collection of short stories, Inherited. Fortunately, the collection is kind to readers who tend towards the neurotic. There is a cogent, unifying theme in the book, splendidly encapsulated in the word ‘inherited’ that propels the reader adroitly from one story to the next. Although characters and incidents from one story do not reappear in others the book has a discernible, steady and comforting pulse.

‘I’ve been conscious, for some time,’ Curtin says ‘that there are these circling ideas in much of what I write—about
inheritance and legacy, memorialisation, grief and loss, the value (or not) of the physical artefacts of a life (our ‘things’, our ‘stuff’), the stories that are passed along generations. These are the things I’m interested in, the things that preoccupy me, and when I began putting the stories together, the title Inherited seemed to capture these preoccupations. The organisation of stories seemed to take on its own flow, too, with natural groupings and transitions becoming apparent’.

One of the recurring themes in Inherited is the idea that physical spaces (bodies, houses and landscapes) collect and trap memories and those memories work on the residents of the spaces in subtle but profound ways. So a woman confined to a wheelchair can still ‘dance’ because of her acute muscle memory and a sound recordist can discern infinitely subtle gradations of silence in empty rooms. Throughout the novel we meet characters, past and present, tangibly connected by the spaces that have housed them. It’s an experience that Curtin is intimately familiar with. She lives and works in one of Perth’s older suburbs in a house that was built as a shop-and-residence in 1928.

‘I like the fact that as well as being a home, it has, for much of its life, been a place of work. People used to buy bacon and cream-buns and petrol and The West Australian here. They could come in and make phone calls for twopence. A little later, caterers cut sandwiches on long trestle tables in the back room and made sponge cakes for weddings and christenings. After a period in the seventies and eighties when the shopfront was removed and the house renovated as a more conventional residence, the house became again—at least partially—a place of work for me. Perhaps a whimsical thought, but I sense the house approves of that! There are memories here, accumulating across decades; residues of lives; remnants of reasons and contexts and purposes I can only guess at. I feel this connection with the past. I don’t mean I hear the whisperings of ghosts, but I’m aware that mine is not the only story to have been written in these walls, and that awareness often throws little darts at my writerly imagination’.

As with The Sinkings Western Australian history looms large as a source of inspiration and interrogation. Inherited is peppered with people, incidents and places from the state’s history including ill-fated engineer C.Y. O’Connor,[1] writer Katherine Susannah Pritchard, artist Kathleen O’Connor and the Kanowna Cemetery which had its boundaries redrawn to give prospectors greater access to mining land. Quizzed about the relationship between the historical record and her fiction Curtin says:

‘I’ve edited a lot of local history during my career, which has been a huge well of inspiration for me. And I often come across little snippets or images that intrigue me while I’m researching something else—“productive distractions”, I call them! That was the case for the story “Cradle of Shadows”, which was prompted by a 1917 newspaper article I happened to see on microfilm. The incident reported, of a woman—a girl, really—who killed her newborn baby during the war, became a story about women and choice and consequences, and whether it is possible to inherit a sense of guilt. As with most of my writing that is inspired by the past, it reaches forward also into the present—not to make overt comparisons, but to place past and present side by side to allow the threads to do their work’.

Stylistically, one of the impressive elements of the collection is how the brevity of the stories belies their depth. With just a few brushstrokes Curtin covers the whole canvass. This is particularly the case with ‘On the uses of the dead to the living’ and ‘The prospect of grace’ which are novelistic in their philosophical and emotional complexity and reach. This ‘reach’, Curtin says is ephemeral and fleeting. ‘I think of Walter Benjamin’s observation that “knowledge only comes in flashes”. This feels like the short story’s territory: that moment of seeing, of revelation. And because the story is shaped and constructed as a condensation of emotion and experience, that flash can feel profound and memorable and intense’.

The drive to compression in the short story, Curtin suggests, links the genre closer to poetry than to the novel. ‘Cate Kennedy has likened the short story to the poem—she thinks there is more similarity with those forms than with the short story and the novel. I understand her thinking here, and perhaps the impulse to compress, condense, intensify emotion and observation that drives some writers to poetry drives me, instead, to the short story’.

Readers will notice an overt poetic influence in two of the stories – ‘Hamburger Moon’ and ‘The prospect of grace’ – which reference the American poet Sylvia Plath. In ‘Hamburger Moon’ we meet Alice in the act of subverting her eating disorder recovery. The story was sparked by a comment Plath made to a friend in a letter that ‘perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing’. The quote ‘ arrested me utterly when I read it’, says Curtin, ‘it rings such a perfectly true note, it speaks so eloquently, it cries as it turns away. I feel I could have written (still could write) half a dozen stories inspired by that one astute observation by Plath’. The utterly heartbreaking ‘The prospect of grace’ tells the story of four couples rent asunder by suicide. Although Plath and her husband Ted Hughes do not feature in the story, they are a constant presence. That presence is established by a haunting epigraph from Janet Malcom’s The Silent Woman, a superb analysis of the biographical industry that has grown up around Plath and Hughes: ‘The suicide “goes away”, and the survivors are forever in the wrong. They are like the damned, who can never make amends, who have no prospect of grace.’[2]

Curtin is currently adapting some of Inherited’s stories into film scripts and is also working on a new novel. Inherited is published by UWA Press.

[1] For the benefit of those who don’t live in Western Australia, C. Y. O’Connor was the Swan River Colony’s first Engineer-in-Chief. Among his legacies is the 560 kilometre Perth to Kalgoorlie Pipeline, which remains one of the world’s major engineering feats.

[2] Readers interested in exploring the Plath/Hughes relationship further might wish to read S.A. Jones ‘A peanut cruncher’s defence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’, Kill Your Darlings, issue 5, April 2011

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