Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 215 pages; 2015.
Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms is the second collection of short stories on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist. (The first, is Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories which I’ve already reviewed.)
According to the author’s biography, she’s written several books for children and teenagers — and I think it shows. Without wishing to sound snobby about it, this volume feels like young adult fiction rather than literary fiction per se. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a genre I seek out. That means this review reflects my personal reading tastes; I’m sure there will be other people out there who will love and adore these stories — they just weren’t for me.
Teenage angst in the 1980s
Funnily enough, because most of the 10 stories are set in the 1980s — the era in which I grew up — I had expected the tales to resonate. There are certainly enough music references — the first story, for instance, is called Like a Virgin, after the song by Madonna — to transport me back to those (horrible) high school days, when teenage life revolved around which bands were in fashion, who was going out with who, and which person had got drunk at the last party.
But each story is written in such a flat way and is so devoid of emotion that I lost interest very quickly. They’re not poorly written by any stretch of the imagination — they’re easy to read, have well-developed settings and characters, and there’s always some kind of conflict at the heart of them which the central character is trying to resolve — they just lack “punch”.
They feel aimed at teenagers, not just in the language that is used, but in the subject matter, too. They are mostly coming-of-age stories (a genre I do like) featuring teenagers getting drunk, discovering sex and developing alliances with school friends. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of hatred for parents and school teachers, and a lot of daydreaming about sex and escape. Many of the characters are grappling with peer pressure and the need to fit in. (Subjects, I admit, that I lived through once and don’t really want to live through again!)
Two of the stories are more adult orientated: Chemotherapy Bay is about a young man with cancer whose girlfriend is sleeping with someone else, Together Alone is about a 30-something woman dealing with the palliative care of her mother. A third story, the titular Six Bedrooms, straddles that time between teenagehood and adulthood, showing what it is like to live in a shared household with people you don’t know very well and how easy it can be to “read” someone wrongly because you’re naive and lack life experience.
Perhaps, for that reason, these are the stories I enjoyed most — and they were the ones that had an emotional depth to them. Every now and then, a little pearl of a sentence would pop up, such as this paragraph from Chemotherapy Bay:
She kissed him before he got out of the car. His breath was starting to smell like the hospital; his kiss was a cold, chemical little offering, like a mollusc after the tide has gone out.
And this one, from Together Alone:
Jimmy and I sat on the sea wall with our feet in the water and watched a school of zebra fish speed past, propping and changing directions like sheep being herded by a helicopter.
Interestingly, while each story in the collection is self-contained, there is one character, Tasha, who grows up with an absent father, an alcoholic mother and a missing brother — how’s that for a set of issues to deal with? — who flits in and out of them. Indeed, Tasha “bookends” the collection by appearing in the first story as a young teen stealing her mother’s wine and the last story in which she is a single mother having to deal with her own mother’s impending death. She appears in two others in the middle. This technique does add some narrative structure to the collection, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t save it.
Note, there doesn’t seem to be a UK publication date for this one. I ordered my copy from the Book Depository and waited several weeks for it to arrive.