Book Review: Lives of the Dead by Jane Skelton
“When he was gone, I felt like we were set adrift. The world was so big and scary, and there was no-one there to protect us.”
This line from ‘The Cradle Arms of Strangers’, the fifth story in this collection of ten by Western Sydney-based writer Jane Skelton, neatly encapsulates some of the recurring themes in many of these haunting and memorable pieces: abandonment, loss, fear, and one’s connection with the often harsh environment.
Skelton has created characters whose lives, though diverse – whether they are trying to recapture, or to escape from, the past; to find meaning and purpose in life; to achieve a sense of belonging or to shed the shackles of commitment – are each inexorably linked to the Australian landscapes by which they are surrounded. In ‘At the Fence’, this strong sense of place is evidenced when a uranium miner, who has lived for a decade in the unforgiving South Australian desert around Woomera, concedes that the river of his northern hometown is “always under his eyelids, flowing through his life as it had his mother’s. He thought he could hear the sounds of water – but it was only his thirst; he thought he could smell the choppy river, but it was only dust” (p. 102).
When considered within the context of this collection, it comes as no surprise to learn that, when he turned his back on his former life beside the raging river, this man also deserted a wife and two children. By and large, Skelton paints husbands and fathers in a distinctly unflattering light in many of these stories, with the ramifications of their abandonment – whether physical (‘Earth Eaters’, ‘The Cradle Arms of Strangers’, ‘The Return’, ‘Looking after Cecily’) or emotional (‘The Fool’) – intensely felt by those left behind. ‘The Return’ is a particularly poignant portrayal of the effect that the desertion – and subsequent reappearance – of a husband and father has on his wife and young daughter. In simple prose that belies the intense turmoil within her characters, Skelton depicts a family torn apart, and a child’s innocence lost in the wreckage.
The collection concludes with two stories that are among the collection’s best: ‘Stones’, a moving tale which a recluse finds peace and companionship in a bush cave, and ‘Looking after Cecily’, a short but brilliant and thought-provoking take on the complexities of mental illness.
Although Lives of the Dead and other stories is a collection filled with memorable characters whose struggles are credible and utterly recognisable, it is the vivid and evocative imagery throughout, and the deceptively quiet and introspective mood of the collection that are Jane Skelton’s real achievements, and the reason for returning to savour these stories again in the future.
Heather Lunney is an avid reader, writer and reviewer who is currently working towards a Master of Arts degree through the University of New England. You can check out more of her book reviews at www.literarylibran.blogspot.com