I am loving short stories more and more. Bite-sized and easy to read an entire story in one go. Variety. And, often, a collection that is themed. This is the case with Rural Dreams (Midnight Sun Publishing 2020) by Margaret Hickey. Each of the beguiling stories in this anthology concern rural and/or outback Australia.

Some of the characters are living in the country, and either loving it or wishing they could escape. Some have already moved to the city but are missing their country childhoods – the bush adventures, the local footy, the closeness of community. But in every story is suffused a gentle and subdued respect for the slowness of life, the nearness of nature, the hard scrabble of farming, the pleasure and pain of everyone knowing everybody else’s business, and the pull of where you come from, where you belong. If you herald from a country town or have ever lived or worked in a rural area, this collection will appeal to you. It will touch something deep inside. Hickey has the ability to recreate those small-town feelings with a few sentences, a quickly-painted portrait, some lines of dialogue that resonate with an authentic ring.

The stories range from a backpacker rescued from a crocodile swamp to a mother who won’t stop swearing to a chilling story about a hike that goes horribly wrong. I loved the heart in the story Fowler’s Bay and the poignancy of Coach. Hickey demonstrates her knowledge of nature and the Australian bush in several stories including Twitcher and Overcoat Joe. One of my favourites – quite unexpectedly – was A Bit of Scrapbooking; the ending really affected me. Desolate and The Precipice are both quite sinister and chilling. There is unexpected humour in many, including The Romantics.

One very interesting thing that I noted about this collection: one of the stories is very similar to a novel recently released by another Australian author. So similar, in fact, that I had to keep checking what I was reading and almost gasping with the familiarity. I’m not suggesting anything improper. I just find it fascinating that two authors – independently and presumably without knowing about each other – have written stories (one a full-length novel, one a short story) that can be almost identical in so many aspects. Perhaps it’s true that all the stories in the world have already been told, and we’re just recycling them. It’s something like meeting your doppelganger. Perhaps you might like to read this collection and see if you can spot which story I’m referring to…and wonder yourself about the creative artistic mind, the zeitgeist of the time, and the way our collective consciousness works in a subliminal way.