The Butcherbird Stories
A. S. Patric
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A. S. Patric's The Butcherbird Stories will take you to places you've never thought of, much less considered exploring. Patric is an intense writer, and this collection will delight and unsettle you, often at the same time. The settings, characters and themes are both familiar and experimental, of the present and yet timeless. They are never what you expect.
A.S. Patric.Credit:Craig Sillitoe
Patric takes the reader firmly in hand from the start. In The Bengal Monkey an embarrassing social situation at an engagement party moves back in time and considers everything from hippie travellers backpacking across the subcontinent to the source of Shakespeare's genius to the primal animalistic urges we, with our safe social rituals, flee or forget.
Patric is an innovative writer, but he does not shy from referencing established works and we are left with an unease akin to that from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. In each story, regardless of length or theme, his prose has the power to shock. Prompted by the force of Avulsion, I looked up an obscure word and found images that could not match the feeling Patric had already created for me. He repeatedly captured my imagination and did not let go – even when I'd rather he did. I found myself musing for hours on the back story of the protagonist – soldier? assassin? criminal? – in Dark Sun.
The Butcherbird Stories by A.S. Patric.
This collection will force you to ponder unanswerable questions, including "why should only the bad kind of accident be permanent?" The prose itself is sparse and some stories are very short, without flab or flamboyance. The shortest (at a mere 500 words) is HB, and it offers a glimpse into the mundane of the everyday that Patric muses on.
Among the Ruins is the longest, letting us revisit the post-modern tale of Bruno Kramzer, one of the fictional men who arrest Joseph K. in Franz Kafka's The Trial. It is absurdist, of a kind with Tom Stoppard's Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead (which elaborates on what happens to two minor characters in Hamlet once they are offstage). A previous incarnation of this novella, Bruno Kramzer, was shortlisted for the 2013 Viva la Novella Competition.
For the reader, there are tantalising hints of the autobiographical. Butcherbird centres around the relationship between a father and daughter, and the collection itself is dedicated to Patric's daughter. Punctuated Air is written in the first person and also suggests the autobiographical. It contains an homage to the refuge that are libraries and the escape that is science fiction as a teenager, and one wonders whether this was the Patric's experience. If so, it is one to which I relate.
Melbourne is ever-present in the collection, in both our contemporary day and the suburban expansion of the previous decades. Patric plays with time and perspective in Jane Doe, an unsettling story set in St Kilda. He even taught me something about Melbourne in The Flood, when an offhand comment by a character, "They've stolen the Pathfinder's hammer again", explained a question I've always wondered but never quite understood. And Patric's Melbourne is multicultural. Names, ethnicities, histories and even dress sense depict the old and the new, European and Australian, side by side.
The collection is expansive, full of life and death. Butcherbirds are named for their habit of impaling their prey, and this violence creeps through the collection. The collection ends with The Flood, the second novella in the anthology and the only story not published in some form elsewhere. This final story even features emojis, a possible first for contemporary literary fiction.
Patric is an award-winning novelist, receiving the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2016 for Black Rock White City and being highly commended in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards for Atlantic Black in 2017. However, he is on record as preferring to read and write in short form. This is his third collection (after Las Vegas for Vegans in 2012 and The Rattler and Other Stories in 2011), and represents a treat for lovers of the short stories. It is also fascinating to place The Butcherbird Stories alongside others from some of Patric's Australian contemporaries, such as the collections from Maxine Beneba Clarke, Melanie Cheng and his writing partner Ryan O'Neill.
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