Review: Here Until August by Josephine Rowe

Here Until August is an intriguing collection of 10 short stories from Australian writer Josephine Rowe. While a couple are set in Australia, place is hard to pin down in these stories. The characters are from a mobile middle class, restless and and untethered, and often trapped in ennui.

In Glisk, a man returns to his hometown in small town WA after running away to Scotland after a local tragedy. A couple in a Montreal apartment bunker down for the winter in Real Life, while their older neighbour goes about her daily life. In Anything Remarkable, a married couple drive through the Catskills, arguing about who should fall pregnant. Sinkers sees a man return to the town where his mother grew up, now flooded by a hydro dam, to spread her ashes. In Post-structuralism For Beginners a woman in Melbourne rewatches the sextape she made with her husband, and contemplates what’s gone wrong with their marriage.

In Chavez, we meet the largely housebound Séverine, who has come to America to escape tragedy in France. Her only company is the enormous dog her neighbour has entrusted her with. In The Once-drowned Man, a taxi driver picks up a man outside the courts, who requests to be driven to the Canadian border. In A Small Cleared Space, a woman retreats to a hut in winter to deal with tragedy. A man and woman drive across the Nullarbor in Horse Latitudes, her to escape a failed marriage, him to do something nefarious. And in the final and most elliptical story, What Passes For Fun, two women contemplate the strange phenomena of ice left behind from a frozen pond.

In each of these stories we are introduced to a couple of characters in some form of crisis. They embark on journeys without destinations, or confine themselves indefinitely within their homes. These stories scratch away at social taboos: miscarriage, manslaughter, the burdens of motherhood, isolation and loneliness. A lot of them feel haunted – like the apparition at the end of Horse Latitudes, or the rumours of ghosts in Sinkers – or uncanny. It may be the times I was reading this in, but I found these stories quite unsettling, like they were shifting beneath me.

The major drawcard here is Rowe’s writing. She is more interested in complexity than simplicity, but never sacrifices clarity. There are many strange metaphors – a woman thinking of her husband traps the thought “like a spider under an upturned glass”; another listening to half-understood French finds “the words… floating back up towards their meanings like free divers’ balloons”. In fact all these stories are obsessed with words.

In Glisk, the returned man remembers the names of Scottish places and “when he says these names it’s with a glint, as though the words have been kept in the wrappers they came in”. In Anything Remarkable, the narrator “compiled a mental list of fs that pluralise to v life to lives, wolf to wolves, knife to knives“, and the unspoken one is wife to wives. And What Passes For Fun is explicitly about language constructs, finding that the mysterious phenomena at its centre “is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic”.

I’m not entirely sure what Rowe is up to here – I don’t think it is simple as words having some intrinsic power. I think it is more about the power that we invest in language and stories – only sometimes to find them wanting. Sometimes it is purely playful. I don’t often enjoy stories about words (ironic, I know!) so this aspect was less interesting for me.

But something I did enjoy is Rowe’s wry sense of humour. Particularly in Glisk, where Rowe paints a portrait of a WA pub rebuilt after a fire, where there’s still a stuffed “singed black cockatoo” and “the top tier is seven-tiers, and the bartender has to put down his copy of the DM-5 of whatever”. There are many such moments that perfectly skewer the society we live in.

Here Until August is published by Black Inc.

Gay rating: 2/5 for one lesbian couple.

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