2 May 2013

Frankie McMillan:The Bag Lady's Picnic and Other Stories (2001)

Frankie McMillan is a graduate of Bill Manhire's MA writing course at Victoria University, Wellington, and her first published book was the first serious work of fiction in Shoal Bay Press's eighteen-year history. There are eighteen stories here.

One of them is called 'Truthful Lies'. All stories, of course, even 'truthful' ones, are lies. The narrators of these stories are often first person, and often unreliable, such as the thirty-year-old narrator of 'Swordfish' who is interviewed by her probation officer about an arson attack on her old school and wildly changes her story: the reader has the impression that she might well be guilty.

Unreliability seems to be everywhere. The first story, 'My First Husband', is not about a husband but a young schoolfriend. Irene's mother in 'Ships in the Night' changes her account of the clarinet played by Norman (who turns out to be a psycho) into a fiddle. Harry pretends to be an artist in 'Errant Buttons'. There's an interesting parallax view: in 'Six Snapshots of Rhona', Rhona says that boys use romantic language when they give lovebites, although much later Sara discovers she was 'lying', as they just say they're feeling horny. And it's not clear how seriously the reader is supposed to take Rhona when she speaks of putting her hand on the thighs of old men in a rest home: 'and whoopee, they get a hard on!'.

Owen Marshall (who is a noted short story writer) praises, among a number of other things, McMillan's 'offcentre' world, and inevitably we don't have to look far to find the influence (conscious or otherwise) of another short story writer: for example, the narrator of 'Swordfish' talks about men and watches, and of the power of watches to hypnotise, which recalls Frank Sargeson's 'A Piece of Yellow Soap', an object that the woman in the story uses to hypnotise the mikman.

I think the story I like most is 'Jumping the Broomstick', a highly original, highly amusing – yet oddly disturbing – story about a young female fire-eater which would not be at all out of place as a McSweeney's story.

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