The Best Australian Short Stories
Edited by Sonya Hartnett
Black Inc, $29.99
YOU would be hard to please if you found nothing in this collection to make you want to linger for a while and you would be easily pleased if you enjoyed everything. That is surely the nature of all such books: they reward readers who are prepared to take risks. A short story is the ideal place for a first meeting, a bit like making the first date for coffee rather than a meal.
Sonya Hartnett's introduction makes the point that she has chosen these 32 stories for the quality of their narrative: ''Intrinsically and essentially they should be about plot.'' She quotes Roald Dahl, such a subtle exponent of the slight gestures that energise short fiction that his mastery of the form is sometimes underrated. He said: ''The purpose of a short story is to tell a story.'' This is a welcome statement of Hartnett's policy, not least because it helped her deal with the 800 pieces she had on offer.
I am a veteran of a period in which short stories were neither short nor stories. Indeed, there was a time when there was little novelty in novels and not much poetry in poetry. But let's not be grumpy so close to Christmas. It's good to bathe in a book that is so strong on the craft of the raconteur, where there is such an abundance of entertainment, where there is laughter and surprise and a good supply of writers who have such belief in their craft that they handle it lightly.
But Hartnett may be slightly disingenuous. Dahl's stories, with the exception of one or two set in graveyards, were seldom focused only on plot. Dahl created changes in readers. Often enough, he did this by creating a false sense of comfort and then deftly sweeping away that veneer. He was a magician in a cardigan.
There are stories here that budge the reader. One is Erin Gough's Benny Wins Powerball, a delightful tale of suburban revenge in which the least likely member of a family wins an impossible sum of money, triggering jealousy in an unpleasant brother and sister. Gough deals with them with whimsical malice.
Her story is coupled with another piece in which an escape is orchestrated by devious means. Chris Womersley's A Lovely and Terrible Thing begins: ''What a burden it is to have seen wondrous things, for afterwards the world feels empty of possibility.'' The story moves stealthily into that tight little space between gothic and eccentric comedy. It is built from edgy observation but, as with Gough's story, the moment of release is also a memorable moment of freedom for the reader.
Many of these stories bring to their craft an understanding of people and relationships, a greater skill than an understanding of words and images. Romy Ash's Underwater is one of the pieces in the book I did not wish to hurry away from. It is the story of a brother and sister renegotiating their relationship as their worlds also change: it uses spare prose but moves simply to places of depth.
James Bradley's The Inconvenient Dead is a great story about life after a tragic and emotionally complex death: ''The Dead didn't want anything: it was the Living who wanted, who needed. And this was their tragedy, to be caught in a story that would not end, to be inconvenient, to be extraneous. To be alive.''
Both Alan Gould (The Raid on Australian Poetry) and Marion Halligan (A Willowy Woman) have written stories with rich sardonic humour, stories that maintain a tradition of delicate satire. Meredi Ortega's David Davis at Coldpigeon Dot Com is another dark comedy, one that exploits the transitory nature of online identity. Zoe Norton Lodge's Yia Yia on Papou is energised by an original and compelling voice, one that is able to overpower bullying and moral violence. Bram Presser's Crumbs, which won The Age short-story competition, is a story of survival told with honesty and confusion of heart.
Hartnett has done an admirable job with this year's collection. She has attracted fine work from, among others, Alex Miller while making plenty of space for newer writers. Of course, writing is learnt by reading and those interested in the craft at various stages of development could do a lot worse than this.
■ Michael McGirr is the author of Things You Get for Free (Scribe). He is head of faith and mission at St Kevin's College.