Queensland Literary Award winner Fiona Robertson, the debut author of a truly eclectic and poignant short story collection, IF YOU’RE HAPPY (UQP 2022), gifts readers an expansive, wide-ranging and yet intimate selection of diverse stories that demonstrates her skills as a writer and the life experience that informs her stories.
IF YOU’RE HAPPY is an impressive anthology, covering geographical scope, both historical and contemporary stories, and a range of issues. Themes of the collection as a whole include happiness (of course) in its many and varied forms, loneliness, yearning, ageing and the compromise that often results, conflict and relationship dynamics, and many stories are informed by Robertson’s other life as a medical doctor. Nearly every story is characterised by a deliciously ambiguous or unresolved ending that leaves the reader with more questions than answers.
If you are passionate about short stories, then I am preaching to the converted. But if a collection such as this is not normally a book towards which you would gravitate, I would encourage you to open the pages of IF YOU’RE HAPPY to introduce you to the genre. Like authors Laura Elvery and Julie Koh, Robertson writes of the pain and joy and tension of the human condition, and explores many different scenarios with pathos, hope, uncertainty and a clear-eyed perspective and insight into emotion and behaviour. Short stories are a wonderful form because you can dip in and out at will; you can read one story in one sitting, and then allow yourself to ponder the meaning and significance of what you have read. Each of these stories leaves room for doubt about what happens next…and space to consider the options of a different outcome.
The stories are set across the world, and Robertson has an uncanny ability to persuade the reader she is most certainly writing from that particular country, even though the following story might be set on a different continent. Such is her skill at not only depicting setting, but also her use of language and idioms, as well as cultural practices. Every story involves change or conflict, with the protagonists struggling to understand their motivations, to repair their fractured lives, or to connect with others in a meaningful way.
The title story, IF YOU’RE HAPPY, is the truly sad and poignant tale of a man who discovers an abandoned toddler. In TEMPEST, a dangerous storm emphasises the lost dreams of a fading woman. In some of the stories, such as ALL THIS BEAUTY and CONSTANT SMALL ADJUSTMENTS, the reader experiences a creeping sense of menace, which often ends in a surprising way. SNOWFALL also swerves in an unexpected direction, challenging stereotypes. And AFTERSHOCK takes the reader to one place and then swiftly reveals a hidden history that shifts our perspective. DESCENT depicts outward transgressions and concealed secrets. A man’s emotional pain is exposed in A SHIFT IN THE ICE. One of my favourites, THE LESSON, takes us into a classroom at a juvenile detention facility, where a teacher is stretched to her limits; where reality hits hard. The most surreal story, with a touch of magic realism, is THE FLUTTERING, a sinister tale of an ill child and the possible spiritual connection with a flock of birds. SEA CHANGE also wanders into slightly unreal territory, with a moving resolution that will give you goosebumps. A sinkhole opens up in a woman’s backyard in THE GROUND BENEATH. Religious vows and marriage are explored in SWEET BOUNTIFUL. Another favourite is BIRTHDAY WISHES, which navigates the shrinking lives of older people with dementia and their carers, yet simultaneously celebrates the small joys of life. SHINY THINGS, HAPPY HOUR, PLUME and PITTER PATTER each give us a glimpse into the lives of others. A SLOW EXHALATION is an eerie story that reads like a six-page thriller and ends on a cliff-hanger. LAST GAME is an unsettling ghost story that will send shivers up your spine. CHRISTMAS PARTY and BOXING DAY both end in unforeseen tragedies. ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON examines the terrible and traumatic legacy of war. Robertson explores an unusual and interesting cyclic structure in AND YOU MAY ASK YOURSELF, in which the story follows first one character and then another, until finally we are returned full circle to the original protagonist – one of those ‘aha!’ moments that are so precious when reading.
The quality of writing in this collection is very high. Stories are concise, sharp and biting; they deliver a metaphorical punch to the stomach. We are drawn into the inner minds and subconscious thoughts of rich and layered characters; we are asked to put ourselves in their place. What decision would we make? Which would we choose? How would we react? How could we live with ourselves if that had happened to us? The prose is beautiful, with evocative description, authentic dialogue and many ethical and moral questions. In many of these stories, the ending only makes us want to return to the beginning, to spot what we have missed, or to enjoy a more informed second reading. A brilliant collection. Fiona Robertson is definitely a writer to watch.