Powerful stories that confront Black Saturday fires and their legacy

A Constant Hum  Short stories
Alice Bishop, Text, $29.99

A Constant Hum is a collection of short fiction exploring the horror and aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday Fires. It is empathetic, eloquent and nuanced. The collection asks the reader to remember what happened on the day and on the days that followed. But it also asks the reader to contemplate what may have happened – and may still be happening – to those who were there in the weeks, months and years since.

Alice Bishop’s first book is a deeply humane collection of stories.

Last February marked the 10th anniversary of the fires, and in A Constant Hum Bishop lays bare the emotional and psychological consequences of one of the worst fires in Australia’s modern history. As readers and fellow citizens, we are reminded what it may be like between the anniversaries, when the news cameras leave and public sympathy is diverted elsewhere.

There are stories you might expect – of those who survived and those who didn’t, as well as of those who stayed to defend and those who sought shelter elsewhere. But there are also stories you might not expect. Have you ever wondered what would happen in the intensity of the fire in a relationship already broken? Highways Lines can help you imagine.

This is a deeply humane collection, capturing trauma and grief as well as love and healing. Most importantly, it is a beautiful read. Some pieces are only one or two sentences long. Yet those sentences deserve – and in fact demand – to be savoured. As you read, put the book down and reckon with the words.

A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop.Credit:

Bishop and her family lost their home in Christmas Hills that day, and that personal experience informs the writing, but the stories do not offer a single narrative or perspective.

Some pieces are portraits of grief in the modern age. Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to lose your home only to be able to stare at it on Google Earth for weeks afterwards; incomprehensible for people who have not experienced such trauma, but Maps – one of the briefest pieces in the collection – gives a glimpse of what it may be like. And in this millennium, where are our rituals of public grief? Cool Change, another heartbreakingly brief piece, captures the beauty and failure of offerings left in a makeshift shrine in the local town hall.

The book is divided into thirds – "Prevailing", "Southerly" and "Northerly", reminding us of the forecasts and the wild path of the fires. The title comes from the eponymous story early in the work. The constant hum is the hum of the bush, but also the hum of faulty powerlines and humankind’s intervention in nature.

This collection writes the Black Saturday Fires into Australian literature. It will hold a different place for all of us. For those who have experienced fires, this may be a small recognition of what has come after. For those who have not, this is a means to understand the enduring impact of bushfire. For all of us, it is a robust reminder that we live in one of the driest – and most prone to bushfire – countries on the planet. There are also explicit reminders that modern society does not adequately manage the land as traditional owners previously did.

In the decade since Black Saturday, Bishop has honed her writing craft and published pieces in Meanjin, Overland, Griffith Review and elsewhere. While this is her first suite of stories, earlier versions of some pieces have been published elsewhere to acclaim. For example, Sticks – a story from the viewpoint of a child whose best friend lost their home and a loved one in the fire – received the Lord Mayor's Creative Writing Award for Short Fiction in 2017. In addition, this collection as a whole was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Literary Prize in 2018.

I am always wary of glowing recommendations from other writers for a debut author, but Fiona Wright and Tony Birch capture the quiet power of the collection perfectly. Bishop is "a writer of the highest quality", with insight both "elegant and lyrical". One hopes she has more work – perhaps a novel – on the way.

Alice Bishop is a guest at Melbourne Writers Festival, August 3-September 8. mwf.com.au

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