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.
For other takes on Six Bedrooms, please see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.
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.
This is my 18th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 14th for #AWW2016.
12 thoughts on “‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight”
This does *sound* good, but I know what you mean about that YA feel. That can turn me off, too, unless I’m expecting it.
I was willing to go with it, but each story felt the same… not just stylistically but in mood and subject matter, so my interest waned pretty quickly…
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Fascinating Kim, and how funny we reviewed it almost simultaneously it seems! I started out thinking the way you did, I must say, in the first story, but I do feel there’s more depth to it than JUST YA. I am not at all interested in focusing on YA. I did like Together alone and Six bedrooms a lot. I like Chemotherapy Bay too but it seemed a little out of place in the collection, and I felt less certain about who was who. I gather Elizabeth and Ross are characters from another work of hers?
I also liked Trouble.
I think the reason I liked the stories is partly because of her control of the short story form, but also because she doesn’t present any simple solutions. The stories are gritty and there’s no clear marker that anyone really has come of age!
Your review is much more generous than mine. I think my inherent bias against YA shows 😉.
And yes, with hindsight, Chemotherapy Bay is perhaps a little out of place in this collection. I was intrigued as to who the trio of characters were and what their relationship with one another was.
There’s no doubt she’s a good short story writer, but I have to agree with Tony’s review in which he feels they were written to a formula, and I can’t help feeling that way too. I’m beginning to really like short stories, a genre I once spurned, but this one, as a whole, didn’t do it for me.
It does a little, just a little!! The funny thing is, as I think I said, I avoid YA too and wonder at adults who focus their reading on it. But this did seem to have something more to me.
I’m glad you are starting to like short stories though, even if I didn’t really see a formula – except, for this modern preference for first person (about which I’m going to comment in my next review).
BTW I went to Tony Messenger’s blog after reading your post, but it seemed that I could only comment there under my Google account. I couldn’t see the usual options to comment under NAME/URL or other accounts. If I’m going to comment on a blog I’m only going to do it under my blog name, so I’m afraid he missed my response! I did have a chuckle at his comment on the physical presentation of the book. I actually showed the book to my husband as I was reading it – the big spaced print – not because I saw it as an attempt to add heft to the book but as a wonderful thing for people with older eyes! The older I get the more I appreciate decent point size and spacing 🙂
Agree about blogs you can’t easily leave comments on: I’ve pretty much stopped reading/following/commenting on book blogs hosted by Blogger — it’s such a clunky system to use.
And I also agree about the font size… I’m not a huge fan of ebooks but at least you can alter the font size to suit your eyesight!
Yes, I don’t follow many. They make my heart sink.
The first blog I set up was/is a blogger blog. It’s for my reading group. I should have transferred it over when I realised my mistake but didn’t. Since it’s more about recording our reading than being an online discussion forum, it doesn’t matter much, but still I wish I’d known then …
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Interesting – I do read a fair bit of YA but I still like it to be complex and have an emotional depth, as did the books I read when I was a YA myself!
Agreed… But something about these stories just didn’t resonate with me. From other reviews I’ve now seen online, my views are in the minority.
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