Smokehouse (UQP 2021) by Melissa Manning is a wonderful, evocative collection of interconnected short stories that each stand alone, but that together add up to more than the sum of their parts – a novel-like narrative that focuses on individuals but in the end circles back to where it began, with a lovely connective symmetry.
The gorgeous cover image – a jar full of smoke – is a reference to the Smokehouse of the title, an actual smoking house for foods, particularly salmon, in the small town of Kettering in Tasmania. The owner of the smokehouse, Ollie, is not the first person we are introduced to, but he becomes central to the story. All of the stories are set in this rural community around this area in Tasmania, or on nearby Bruny Island.
The book opens and closes with tales of Nora, who has moved with her husband Tom and their two girls to a piece of land in Kettering, with plans to live in a caravan while their new home is being built, brick by brick. This first story is longer than most in the collection and serves to thoroughly immerse the reader in Nora’s world – her yearnings and desires, her regrets and disappointments. It is through this story that we are introduced to characters who will later feature in their own stories, although we don’t know it at the time. The middle section is a compilation of short narratives that expand on these minor characters briefly mentioned on the periphery of Nora’s life. And finally, the last story returns to Nora and her much changed life, bringing together the whole cast of people we have met. The Nora of the last story is a different woman from the one we first met; her situation has become almost unrecognisable and her own personality and circumstances are very different.
Besides the characters, the other aspect that joins these stories together is the themes. Grief, loss, disappointment, belonging, sacrifice, loyalty, betrayal, desire, shame, family and history are interwoven threads in each tale. The other theme that consistently resurfaces again and again is that of parents and children, of the separation of those relationships, the dynamics of loss, the flawed and messy act of parenting, the grief of children lost or estranged or sacrificed. This is the emotional centre of Smokehouse – the difficulties of family, the responsibility and weight of children, the balance between individual self-actualisation and placing the needs of others above your own.
It is also a book about the unexpected paths of life, the unimagined catastrophes, small and large, that creep upon us, or hit us suddenly, changing our sense of predetermination. In a collapsing concertina effect, we see characters in specific periods of their lives, not where they expected (or perhaps hoped) to be, struggling to accept their circumstances, or revelling in the joy to be found in risk-taking and change.
The writing is smart, tight and powerful, the characters are compelling and engaging, and the narrative is thoughtful and compassionate. Smokehouse is a remarkable book.