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.