The collection opens with The Duchess Dresser. A young man picks up a duchess dresser from the side of the road and decides it will be the perfect piece of furniture for his room in the share house he lives in. The only thing wrong with it is that the drawer doesn't open.... oh and that same drawer rattles and shakes all night, and then there is the spectre of a young woman that seems to call it home. What I thought was interesting about this story is that while the story goes in a certain direction the reader is kind of lulled into thinking they know what is going on until suddenly it ends up somewhere differently but it still makes sense! Then again, that is pretty much trademark Lanagan and I should know that by now!
The next story is called Isles of the Sun and very much evokes the feeling of summer life by the beach. The kids are out playing, the beach is nearby and life is pretty relaxed. When a young boy sees some light beings, he feels called to follow them, and he just knows that they will teach him to fly! As he takes various steps to feel lighter, his convinces his friends and their friends to do likewise and suddenly there is a whole town of kids who are determined to follow and learn. The emotional punch of this stories comes from his mother's view of these events, knowing what she has seen but not being able to believe, and knowing that no one else could possibly believe her version of events either.
Lanagan has the reader questioning how they would react to the unusual when Don and his wife are catching the train to a friend's social event in Bajazzle. When a group of Sheelas sit near Don and his wife in a crowded train carriage he is clearly uncomfortable with the overt sexualisation of these young women and even more so when they start to 'sing' their story. When he comments that he doesn't find their performance entertaining, Don's wife suggests that "Maybe that’s ’cause it’s not put on for your entertainment."
Don is a man who is stuck in the past. He misses the woman his wife was now that she has taken to a much more feminist inspired lifestyle. The reader might hope that when he is tempted into a dilapidated house by a beautiful young woman that his good moral strength will shine through, but that is certainly not the only thing that he leaves behind.
With imagery in the story including inspiration from sheel na gig (according to Wikipedia "figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva") and succubi this story is not only fascinating and challenging but also quite disturbing. There was also a degree of sensuality in this story that I found quite surprising, until it was changed into something completely different in the course of a couple of pages.
The final story.is Significant Dust and takes as it's inspiration the Mundrabilla UFO encounter which happened in the middle of the Nullabor Plain in 1988. Rather than focus directly on this event, we instead meet Vanessa, a young woman, who has come to work in the isolated roadhouse in order to get away from a terrible accident that has basically changed her whole family. With the only interactions being with her misfit co-workers and travellers who pass through, Vanessa looks for ways to assuage her guild about the accident but also the truth about the strange people who sometimes stop in the roadhouse and the odd lights that illuminate her small room late at night.
What makes this collection different from previous short story collections by Lanagan is that there are only four stories, each approximately the same size, and that the setting for these stories is much more clearly Australian in setting than most of her other short stories. For these differences though, there are many similarities. Lanagan's writing is, as usual, pitch perfect and her ability to tell a complete story within such a small landscape is amazing.
I still have a few of Lanagan's stories to read which I must get to. Then again, I could quite easily reread this collection time and again and I am sure I would find something new each time. I think this is particularly true of the final two stories.
A presence haunts an old dresser in an inner-city share house. Shining sun-people lure children from their carefree beachside lives. Sheela-na-gigs colonise a middle-aged man’s outer and inner worlds. And a girl with a heavy conscience seeks relief in exile on the Treeless Plain.I read this short story collection for the following challenges
These stories from four-time World Fantasy Award winner Margo Lanagan are all set in Australia, a myth-soaked landscape both stubbornly inscrutable and crisscrossed by interlopers’ dreamings. Explore four littoral and liminal worlds, a-crackle with fears and possibilities.
PS If you want to find out more about the Twelve Planets series check out my previous reviews which includes details of the collection as a whole.