By Fiona McFarlane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 10, 2016)
Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
Fiona McFarlane’s first collection of stories, The High Places, follows the 2013 publication of her well-received novel, The Night Guest. Her debut was hailed as a meditation on isolation, identity and memory. It’s the story of Ruth, a widower living alone in an Australian beach house. She becomes convinced she sees a tiger, both outside and inside her house. Her mental state is questionable and this unpredictable narrator adds to the feeling of suspense as the story unfolds.
Sometimes it’s difficult to review a collection of stories, especially one as diverse as McFarlane’s. The task requires, it would seem, a statement about what the stories have in common, or how they flow, one to the next. McFarlane has a talent for getting us into the minds of characters suffering some sort of isolation or sense of otherness. It’s this representation of the intricacy of individual human experience that I’d say is the most distinctive quality of her work.
In “Art Appreciation,” young Henry contemplates marriage after his mother wins the lottery and promises to set him up. He meets a girl, begins to court her—all normal actions—and yet, the reader feels all along that something is amiss with him. Henry doesn’t seem to relate in normal ways, or does he? He believes his life has taken a new turn, but has it?
“That was the great thing: to sit at his desk, observing as he always did the movements of the office… but as a profoundly different man, with a new and superior perspective. There was no longer anything to keep him from approaching Ellie, but he held off even so, not out of hesitation but in order to savour his own intentions.”
In “Mycenae” (probably my favorite of the collection), two couples vacation in Greece together thirty years after their initial meeting. One couple has had an exciting and interesting life (or have they?), and they make the other couple feel inferior and anxious. And yet our perspective is Janet’s—the wife of the more boring couple—and as the story progresses, cracks in her version of things appear and widen.
“She feared the Andersons, who were from ‘good families,’ however that might be understood—this was clear because they used to mention expensive New England schools and exotic family holidays. Or Amy Anderson mentioned these things on behalf of herself and Eric with an air of begrudging tenderness, as if obliged to give up a shameful but pleasant secret, and this fascinated Janet, who’d grown up in an asbestos house owned by the Australian government.”
As in The Night Guest, animal/human interaction plays a role. In the first story, “Exotic Animal Medicine,” a young veterinarian has an automobile accident on the night of her wedding as she drives to care for an ill, imperious cat. “Violet, Violet” is the story of Mr. Kidd and his budgerigar, a bird he claims is over a hundred and fifty years old and not exactly of this world. The title story, “The High Places,” follows a farmer and his son as they sacrifice the family’s sheep in an attempt to end drought conditions. And “Rose Bay,” a story about the reunion between two estranged sisters, ends with a climactic bit of violence at the Sydney zoo.
Throughout the collection, reality is viewed through unique perceptions; each story is distinctive and vivid. Certainly, there were some I enjoyed more than others but several gems shine brightly, like “Buttony,” which recently appeared in The New Yorker and sent me looking for this book. McFarlane writes with great wit and wisdom, and these are stories to be savored. Perhaps it’s an uneven read in some ways, but each story has something to offer and Ms. McFarlane is definitely a young author to watch.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.