Saturday, May 07, 2011

Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan

Yellowcake brings together ten fiercely original and quietly heartbreaking short stories from the extraordinarily talented author of Black Juice, Red Spikes and Tender Morsels.
Normally on a Saturday I do a Weekend Cooking post, and given that the title of this book has cake in it, I really thought about including this post as Weekend Cooking, but really there is not a lot to do with food in this book, and the term yellowcake is often associated with uranium, so the link would be tenuous at the least! Instead, you get a straight review.

Margo Lanagan is an author I had heard a bit about before, and had recommended to me a few times by various people. When I saw that she had a new short story collection coming out, and it coincided with Aussie Author Month in April, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to try a new to me author. I am now a fan, and I am trying to track down as much of her work as I can find.
This is a collection of stories that have been published in various places over a number of years, with only one being previously unpublished.

Bearing in mind that at this stage I have only read the ten stories in this collection, Margo Lanagan seems to see the world a little differently than the rest of us and has an extremely fertile imagination. All of the stories in this collection are standalone, some of them show a world that is recognisable as being allied to our everyday life, but others are completely different. Some of the stories are poignant, others are confronting, and some are dark, but all of them are supremely crafted.

This wasn't a short story collection to read one after the other. For the most part I read a story and then took time to think about it before moving onto the next, so as a result it took me a while to read the whole collection. Whilst I love to read a book that I just can't put down, there is also something ultimately satisfying about taking your time and savouring each individual story. Yellowcake is definitely a collection to be savoured.

Here are my thoughts about each of the stories in the collection:

The Point of Roses - young kids meet some Travellers and play a game where the travellers have to guess what three items that Billy has bought with them. What they don't realise is that the residue from the three items settles over the Billy's family as well, forcing his grandfather Corin to reevaluate his life including his feelings for his wife and the way he has interacted with his children. One of the three items was a rose as referred to in the title of the story, and one of the items was a spinning ashtray. My dad had one of the spinning ashtrays when I was little, and my sister and I used to love spinning the ashes away. Makes me shudder a little to think about that now! Loved this story.

The Golden Shroud  - What happens when Rapunzel's hair takes on a life of it's own. So much fun!

A Fine Magic - a young man is rebuffed by two sisters and takes his revenge in a most unlikely fashion.The story features a carousel, and the rhythm of the storytelling definitely had me seeing and feeling the music and the motion of a carousel in motion.

An Honest Day's Work - Interesting story about a monster that is bought in from the sea and then large groups of men need to get to work on dismembering.  I didn't dislike it, but felt more disturbed by this one.  It was interesting to read that this story was inspired by the ship breaking that is done in India. Old ships that have reached the end of their life are taken to this coast and are slowly dismantled, removing all the items that can be reused. I had seen this mentioned before in Jojo Moyes book Ship of Brides, when one of the characters is travelling along the coast and sees the ship that she travelled to the UK on as a war bride.

Into the Clouds on High - only new story in the collection, and had an ethereal quality to it. Marcus's mother has been preparing him for this day, the day when she can literally no longer keep her feet on the ground.

Night of the Firstlings - retelling of the first Passover and the Exodus. I liked this one a lot, especially the final scene. I must confess that I had never thought about the fact that the floor of the Red Sea would have been anything other than smooth walking before.

Ferryman  - this was the first story I read out the collection - instantly made me think of the song Don't Pay the Ferryman. Sharon is going to follow in her father's career footsteps, but what happens when he is the ferryman who rows the dead across the river Styx.

Heads - didn't like this one as much as some of the other stories mainly because it was quite confronting. It is however a powerful piece on the effect of war, particularly on the young.

Living Curiosities - A man visits the circus to see all the freaks, and yet he ends up being the one who is observed. There are also ghosts, and a somewhat maniacal circus owner.

There were several quotes that I thought about posting from the collection, but I just loved this one, which also features the carousel.

And there in the golden glow I sat high-headed above the hats and feathers and turbans of the ghoulish crowd turned away from me. I wished the light were as warm as it looked; I wished the music were filling my ears. I dreamed - hard, as if the vehemence of my dreaming would make it happen - that my shiny black horse would surge forward beneath me, and that I would be spun away from this place and this night, lifted and lowered instead past Lake Geneva, past Constantinople, past Windermere and Tokyo Palace and Gay Paree, past Geneva again, and the Lake, again and again around the whole picturesque gilt-framed world, for as long as ever I needed.

Eyelids of the Dawn - a behemoth, that happens to be a suburban shopping centre complex, awakens and feels the need to wash itself clean of the human fleas by taking a dip in the ocean. This act is witnessed by two people - a young woman trying to settle her baby during the night and a milkman doing his early morning rounds.

Expect to hear more about Margo Lanagan on my blog in the future!

This book counts for both the Aussie Author Challenge, and Once Upon a Time V (short story peril)


  1. Great review, Marg.
    Lanagan is such a great writer and this has been on my TBR list for a while.

  2. This book sounds like something that I would really like, and I thank you for sharing your very thoughtful and well written review with us. Very intriguing post!

  3. I been wanting to include more short stories in my TBR pile and this collection sounds like a great place to start (and how beautiful is the cover!). I've really enjoyed hearing about your adventures in short stories over the last month or so.

  4. Lanagan makes me want to not bother writing fiction

  5. I'll go with it being a weekend cooking post. I didn't know about the term 'yellowcake'. So I won't mix it up with the food version in the future.