When Robert Power is not working as a professor of social sciences specialising in harm minimisation in AIDS, he’s building a reputation as a fiction writer. His debut novel In Search of the Blue Tiger was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for an unpublished manuscript and the title story of Meatloaf in Manhattan, his first short story collection, won second prize in The Age’s Short Story Prize. We get a sense of how apt the short story collection can be in imparting a sense of global society, and the sheer availability and transportability of its stories. Power’s stories are hugely diverse in their settings, which he mines for meaning with considerable facility.
A Vietnamese story, She Calls her Boy Amazing, is a strong tale of a child growing up as a beggar around the railway station and how the loss of his mother is substituted by the paternalistic affection of an older man who recognises the boy’s talents and gives him a leg-up in life.
The story of a couple that loses their only child on Ireland’s barren Aran Islands is another to benefit from its exotic setting. At one level it’s the story of the disintegration of a marriage, at another an exploration of the mysticism of place, and the idea that by changing places we can change ourselves. The Mayor’s Fear of the Penalty, set in the Indonesian province of West Papua, is another that gains from its location. It’s a classic tale of punished hubris in the context of sport, politics and populism.
Power frequently evinces an authorial interest in how life can go wrong for a character at any given moment. The span of experience in the collection challenges our moral schemas by pointing to life’s intrinsic injustices. He’s particularly alive to human foible and folly, with a clear interest in exploring characters whose moral compasses are awry. The title story is a blackly humorous tale of trivial meanness while several others such as Firenze and Snowball and Grooming deal with the way people use and abuse the internet. The latter, in particular, is a neatly twisted cautionary tale. An occasional glibness in tone is more than compensated by the imaginative diversity on show.
Ed Wright, The Australian June 21-22, 2014 [all reviews at: www.transitlounge.com.au]