Review: Permafrost by SJ Norman

Permafrost: that seemingly eternal frozen soil of the world’s most wintry lands that is turning out to be less than eternal as the poles warm, faster than anywhere else. And what’s emerging from these frozen soils: the long dead, mummified mammoths, dormant disease. These days permafrost is less a symbol of permanence than instability. That same sense of instability permeates this collection of stories.

Each of these seven stories offers the kind of high-brow, insidious horror that has become popular in cinema. At their best, they are stories that crawl under your skin, linger in your teeth, like the titular story, in which the narrator sets out to catch up with an ex-girlfriend in Hokkaido in the depths of winter. “You can’t shake it,” the woman says of the cold, “With every winter another frozen layer builds up under the surface, a dull, heavy accumulation that you carry under your bones”. It reminded me a little of Raymond Carver’s story of a man who can’t get a hair out of his teeth, worrying at it all day, which my university lecturer interpreted as a sign that he was a werewolf. In Secondhand the narrator works in a secondhand bookstore and recounts the regulars who come in. Its nostalgic mood lulls you into a false sense of security, the hauntedness creeping up your spine when you least expect it. In Hinterhaus the narrator is staying in a gentrifying East Berlin neighbourhood opposite a decaying apartment block, feeling that perhaps that noone can hear them. The completely bonkers Whitemark conjures primal hunger in ancient England. It’s terrific, queasy, sexy fun.

Framing the collection are the only two stories set in the Southern Hemisphere and outside the winter gloom. Stepmother follows the young narrator on a weekend away with their father and his girlfriend in regional New South Wales. Although there is nothing definitively supernatural going on, it is still full of absence and the narrator’s fascination and horror at women’s, and their own, bodies:

The size and texture of her breasts fascinated me. They’d spend a lot of summers exposed on foreign beaches, basted in Reef oil. The loosening brown crust of her décolletage contained the globes of soft tissue, like the skin of a baked desert contains the custard. I thought that maybe breasts would be a nice thing to have. A flesh mantle to protect the heart.

The final story, Playback is more an experiment in novella, in which the narrator returns to their childhood home on a spit of east coast Australia to finish an album. While waiting for their girlfriend to join them, they mark time by revisiting their complicated childhood, the sounds of their upbringing. “What I get from the music now is what the ocean once gave me,” they say, “The currawongs, the river traffic: these are my bone songs”. Here at last haunting allows for more comforting possibilities, even though in this one story the hauntedness feels a little less relevant.

The scariest (it includes the collection’s one moment of heart-stopping terror), the penultimate Unspeakable, is perhaps the least fictional. The narrator takes an after-hours tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau, wondering at the juxtaposition of tourist trappings and overwhelming horror. It feels like the collection’s mission statement. On arriving at the room of human hair, the narrator considers how familiar objects aide the process of assimilating horror:

Horror, as a filmic or literary genre, relies on familiar settings to achieve its effect. Perhaps true horror, the horror of atrocity and its remnants, relies on the same, if it is to be viscerally understood. If horror is a genre in which a thrill is elicited by a making-strange of the familiar, then perhaps museums of atrocity reverse this process: the unimaginable is made personable through the endless accumulation of fine detail.

The narrator draws parallels between the hair in Auschwitz and the artefacts of Indigenous genocides in the museums around the world, contemplates the irony of an Australian friend horrified by the idea of eating ice cream on the grounds of the Holocaust with camping on sites where Indigenous people were massacred. How can stories grapple with atrocity? What happens when they are turned into art? Norman strains a little for answers here, where perhaps there are none.

Norman has a knack for a pithy and often grotesque image. A tanned older woman is “somewhere between middle-class hippy and bog mummy”; sweaty sheets cling to a lover “like a moist ham hock in a sack”. Throughout the characters are obnoxiously cool gen x types who are part of ambient music acts, party ’til dawn with teenage millionaires, fist English guys in old pubs and frankly wouldn’t give a fuck about what you think of them. They are the queer and alienated, the colonised and occupied, people who live on the margins.

The narrator goes unnamed, leaving it open whether they are the same person, and how much they share with the author. They are themselves an absence, an outline in the same way as Rachel Cusk’s character in her novel of the same name. They are their desire, a longing for a place “where bodies like mine could be powerful, filthy, strange and free”. Taken as a whole, the collection is a portrait of someone grappling with the unstable ground of identity and desire, with home and upbringing, with death and life. The boundaries we draw are never as solid as we might think, or hope.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters and themes throughout and graphic queer sex.

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