‘Little White Slips’ by Karen Hitchcock

2009, 249 p.

I’m not a great short-story reader, especially when they are in a collection like this.  If they are truly short short-stories, then do you read them one at a time over an extended period, or do you pop them in, one after the other, like a bag of lollies?  I don’t like being jerked around from one situation to another in a single reading.  I tend to remember short stories better when I hear them read aloud, rather than when I read them myself.  With the exception of Nam Le’s The Boat, I  tend to find a volume of short stories to be a bit of a curate’s egg.  But is it realistic to expect every story in a collection to blow you out of your reading-chair, or is a hit-rate of a couple of memorable stories within one volume sufficient?  Is a short story MEANT to be memorable? If so, then I am a miserably failed short-story reader.

Karen Hitchcock is being hailed as a “bold new voice in contemporary fiction”.  Certainly, the first couple of stories in this book were very good, especially the first rather lengthy story about a doctor swotting to pass her specialist examinations.  There are a couple of stories about body image; a couple about the study involved in becoming a psychiatrist- the first of which seemed to form a good counterpart to the opening story about studying to become a specialist from the other partner’s perspective.  But the middle of the book seemed to sag with stories that seemed more like baggy and rather nebulous reminiscences, and too many stories  seemed to pick up on the same themes from a different perspective.  The last story, which gives the collection its title, was good, as I rather hoped it would be.

Perhaps there is an overarching structure to this book that I couldn’t detect.  Certainly it deals with “women’s iss-ews” like body image, medicine,  the limits of male and female friendship, professional life and identity etc.   But I felt as if the same narrative voice was telling all these stories- an educated, Australian, mid-30s, often childless, professional voice, or in the case of the reminiscences,  the voice of someone who would grow up to be this person.  Did the author have a vision for this collection of stories as a whole that contributed to this sameness? or is the author not ready or unwilling to move beyond this?

I will read other stories written by Karen Hitchcock.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed her more in a collection with other writers where she shares the stage with others, rather than a solo performance- I see that several of these stories have previously appeared in Meanjin and The Sleepers Almanac, and were picked up in Best Australian Short Stories in 2006, 2007 and 2008.   Or perhaps I just need to find a way to read short stories differently.

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