Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is the literary equivalent of a concept album. Instead of songs expressing a particular theme or idea, it features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bushfire.
It is possibly the most quintessentially Australian book I’ve ever read. It hums with vernacular, cultural references — models of cars, brands of ice-cream, the names of TV shows — flora and fauna that are only found on this island continent.
And yet it deals with the universal theme of what happens to people and their communities in the wake of a natural disaster.
Inspired by fire
Taking the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 (in which 180 people lost their lives) as her inspiration, Bishop explores the tragedy from almost every conceivable angle: those that stayed and fought to save their homes, the nurses who looked after the injured, the firefighters who fought the blaze, the people who lost loved ones, those that survived but felt guilty because of it.
There are 47 stories divided into three sections (all named after the wind that wreaked so much havoc — Prevailing, Southerly and Northerly); most are a few pages long, several are just a few lines and read like exquisite poetry:
In the Ashes
People think it takes away everything, but the colours were unlike anything I’ve ever seen: greys stronger than railway steel, blue-black charcoals, and oranges like tangerines—baked rust by dashboard sun.
All are written with a forensic eye for detail, often focused on finding beauty in grief. There are recurring themes — the intensity of the flames which were so hot they melted metal, the wind shifts, the loss of livestock, the important role that emergency services and community organisations played, those that lost everything having to wear donated clothing that didn’t fit properly — that build a consistent picture of an emergency situation that quickly turned to tragedy.
In fact, the picture that builds is emotionally intense, so much so that I could only read A Constant Hum in small doses, say three or four stories at a time, for this is not a book to plow through, but one to savour, to cogitate on, to mull over.
In the Acknowledgements, Bishop reveals that her family lost a house in the East Kilmore fire on Black Saturday. “I can’t imagine how it would really feel to lose family / friends / a partner in that way—what it would still feel like, today,” she says. I think this beautifully rendered collection demonstrates that she can imagine that kind of loss and she can write about it with care, kindness and great authenticity.
If you liked this, you might also like
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper: a true-crime tale about the arsonist responsible for one of the most devastating fires on Black Saturday, one of the best books I’ve read this year.
This is my 15th book for #AWW2019. Note it’s only available in the UK in eBook form, but you can buy the physical book direct from the Melbourne-based publisher Text.
19 thoughts on “‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop”
Good news, Kim, The Arsonist has been longlisted for the NIB Prize…
If you check out the comments below my post about it (URL below), you will see that we’ve wandered on to chatting about research, because the NIB is an award that focusses on that.
But It does make me wonder, if the researchers are not the authors, will they get some acknowledgement / prize money? Or maybe one of the eligibility rules is that the author had to do it all herself.
Anyway, I’m also curious about what you think, being a journalist, about how judges could develop criteria for choosing the winner. For example, from what I could see in Hooper’s book, her research included lots of interviews as well as the kind of research papers that you’d expect, and those interviews would have had to have been very sensitively managed and also been emotionally draining for Hooper to do. So a very testing process. How would you judge that against Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees, which involved very wide ranging research and more of a science/environment knowledge base. I reckon choosing between them would be very tricky indeed…and that’s without me knowing much about the other longlisted books…
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Is that the only criteria — research? Sounds an odd way to judge a book. Research can encompass all different things from face-to-face interviews to tracking down information on the internet. I’m not sure how you would judge whether one type of research was tougher (or more award-winning) than another?
Well, exactly, I think it’s a very interesting award for that reason!
I’m really glad you start by saying how Australian this book is, Kim. I’m half way through it and haven’t picked it up for over a week as I’m finding it hard-going. Not because there’s anything wrong with it on a sentence-by sentence level, I just cannot connect to it at all and I think it’s because it might not work for a non-Australian audience. The author assumes the reader knows all about Black Saturday (and fair enough, it’s easy to look it up on Wikipedia) so everything feels like a reference to an event that if I was aware of it at the time, it was only in the most peripheral sense. I really wish there was a “this is what happened” scene-setting story at the beginning of the collection, as I think that would have helped me enormously.
Also, I am finding the stories to be quite repetitive, and I think that may be because with an event like a fire, which doesn’t discriminate, everyone who is affected by it is going to have a similar experience (it’s not like a war where there are seemingly infinite different stories to be told from all manner of perspectives), but I’m also finding the writing quite repetitive too: for example almost every other story mentions sun-faded clothing, which once or twice is a nice detail that really gives a sense of place, but after a while has begun to bug me. None of which is to say I haven’t enjoyed some of the stories so far – I have, particularly the poem-like one paragraph ones (‘Maps’ on page 100 really sticks in my mind in a “wow, I wouldn’t have considered that” kind of way) and I do like the idea of the collection being, as you say, like a ‘concept album’.
Interesting idea to include a scene-setting bit at the start… this book was inspired by Black Saturday but modern Australian history is crammed with so many similar tragedies that bushfires (and what to do when you are threatened by one) is simply part of the Australian psyche (especially if you live outside of the capital cities), so it’s not really needed for an Australian audience — particularly as this year marks the 10th anniversary and in February our TVs were filled with documentaries and news pieces about it (I was on holiday here at the time) so it’s pretty fresh in everyone’s memory. Perhaps if this book was published outside of Australia (which it hasn’t been… yet) that might be a useful addition to help an international readership understand it a bit better.
And yes, there is a repetitive nature to these stories, but I think that’s one of the strengths because it shows how indiscriminate a fire can be: money and success won’t protect you from the flames. But I don’t agree that everyone has a similar experience — a bushfire is a very personal experience and the ferocity of the fire you confront will depend on so many factors: wind, humidity, terrain, level of vegetation, the type of building material your home is constructed of, how much warning you had, how prepared you were etc etc. Some people died in their homes, some in their cars trying to flee. There is one story of a couple found on a cricket pitch, burned to death. Others have miraculous stories of escape — jumping into rainwater tanks, hiding in the dams, running into the sea, laying under wet towels — so no two stories are really alike. They’re all terrifying, though.
I’ve read the first handful of stories & found them utterly absorbing. I sometimes find the ‘names have been changed’ approach annoying, even though I know these are stories based on fact not fact, I still want the arsonists name to be real/true. Not sure why I feel so strongly about this, but I’ve realised it’s been bugging me for a week now.
Well, that’s most likely for privacy / legal reasons, and also, the book isn’t billed as non-fiction so I guess that gives the author a bit of creative licence. But I know what you mean — there’s clearly one story there that is based on Brendan Sokaluk, the Churchill arsonist.
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I love the sound of this Kim, but wonder if I’d miss a lot, not knowing the Australian references?
As David points out above, I think it probably helps to have an understanding of the Black Saturday fires or at least a comprehension about bushfires generally, but I don’t think the references mean you’l miss out on anything really. I guess for me it’s just nice to read a book that casually mentions Australian brands and Australian trees and animals I know instead of ones from the UK or US.
This sounds like a wonderful testimonial to the people who were called upon to help in this awful situation. It reminds me of a video program we watched in New Zealand earlier this year about the earthquake in Christchurch. It consisted of short pieces about people involved – teachers who escorted children to safety, construction workers desperately trying to pull people out of the wreckage. It was incredibly moving
When I was in Victoria on holiday in February (before I moved to Fremantle in June) it was the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday, so there were quite a few documentary / current affair type shows on TV and they were all very emotional. Because I didn’t live here at the time of the fires, I really hadn’t quite grasped how traumatic and tragic they were — my dad’s a volunteer in the Country Fire Authority so I should have known better — and the after-effect of them is quite outstanding. Many survivors have PTSD on top of their grief of losing their homes, animals & loved ones.
I often wonder about people who survive such traumatic events. The news media and the worlds attention moves on but those people are stlll left with the pain …
It certainly has a beautiful cover.
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The cover art is stunning, isn’t it? It’s by Imogen Stubbs, who is the art director at Text Publishing.
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