Stories from Down Under
Himmat Singh Gill

Black Juice
by Margo Lanagan.
Viva Books, New Delhi. Pages 218. Rs 160.

To put it simply, Margo Lanagan's short stories are refreshing and strikingly different in plot and content to what many writers of fiction are penning today. Whether it is young adult fiction, a fantasy-packed journey or plain reality mirroring the brutally taxing lives being led by the middle class today, her tales are certainly unique and exceptional. Based in Sydney, she has homed on to the wilds of Australia and the hardy and often-unforgiving life set that nature there in its bounty visits upon its inhabitants.

Margo's originality shows in the lead story, Singing my Sister Down, where everyone had come to watch Ikky, fresh from prison ,walk into a tar-pit to get submerged to death, with all the onlookers singing loudly until the whole of her was out of sight. "Besides, there was Ikky with the sun on her face, but the rest of her from the rib-peaks down gloved in tar, never to see sun again." And the macabre irony of it all, being tall and light weight, "she was going to take a long time about sinking."

In My Lord's Man, the Lord is so smitten by his wife who has spent the night "carousing in the courtyard of his keep," that he only sees good in her and so concurs the mistress who advises Berry help at the estate. "So we must both trust my lord's sight, and hold onto that trust, mustn't we? This all either of us can do". Margo's eye for detail and minute description is vivid in Wooden Bride, where the young bride is being photographed sometime early in the last century.

"He shakes his black cloth and organises his photographer's dust. My spine is straight as a pine trunk and my face is empty of everything. He disappears under the cloth. The dust flashes and thuds. The smoke jumps free like a loosed kite."

The stories that Margo weaves, though mostly meant for the young, cast a mystique cloak of the surreal and yet an invitingly probable wish that the reader hopes would somehow happen, where an unhappy child at home goes up a mountain pass with a gift of home-made cheese, which he presents to the good 'angels' who descend to earth in the shape of a bird, to help get the ailing nanny of the boy get well. "Angels! I cry. All this water damps my voice. I might be shouting in the hayshed. Angels, come down! Someone needs you! It's my nan! Come down and fix her! I have this cheese!" This so-honest child's appeal is from Earthly Uses, and if you were looking for some humour then here is a passage from Perpetual Light, where two old ladies are talking to each other after a funeral: "They might look like sides of beef, but they gushed at each other like Victorian spinster poets."

Winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction, Margo's strangely haunting and immensely perceptive collection is a ‘must read’ this summer, not only for the young but also for those who consider themselves adults.