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Book Review : The Strains and Stresses of Australian Family's Ties

November 23, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Stories From the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories by Jessica Anderson (Viking: $15.95; 246 pages)

If you are interested--really interested--in how families work, these are perfect stories for you. If you care more about detectives or movie stars or intellectuals or people who live by their jobs, these "Sydney Stories," these "Stories From the Warm Zone" must seem small indeed; addressing those moments we've all had, those times we've all lived through, so simple, so available to us that surely they can't qualify as real "stories."

A little girl whose dad is sick runs her hands over his hair, his collarbones, his ears. She does her homework under the table where he sits, bouncing and nudging his foot into a constant, companionable rhythm. Not until the next story or so do we realize the girl has a stammer; her father (ordinarily so kind, so ethical, so conscientious and so beleaguered himself in so many ways) treats her stammer in such a way that she'll never be able, really, to forgive him again. But that's just one moment--one series of moments--in the life of one obscure family. . . . These stories divide in half. "The Warm Zone's" narratives are "autobiographical fiction," childhood stories set in the northern, tropical clime of Brisbane, Australia. They are (though the author might not think it, or like it) intensely American--stories of savagery and civilization, of social climbing and falling, of absurd prejudice, of families trying to be more than they are, while always battling the fear of being something less than they perceive themselves to be.

Four Children

There are four children here; the kindly Neal, an adolescent boy just beginning to go off to town dressed in blue serge to work with his sickly, socialist dad; Rhoda, beloved older sister, who knows everything and laughs a lot and carries that lovely invisible zap that makes her eternally lovable. Then the next sister, Sybil, a tattletale and a pompous little jerk, and then Beatie, the littlest--who stammers, who watches, who remembers, who records.

Rhoda doesn't like Neal, never has, and makes no bones about it. Beatie doesn't care for Sybil (haven't we all had those sanctimonious siblings, or been those sanctimonious siblings? There's no one more unbearable). Iris, the mother, loves and reveres Charles, the father, but there are grudges and strains within that relationship. Iris is from an "old" Australian family; Charles, though born on Australian shores, is one of a family of dirt-poor, wild-talking Roman Catholic Irish immigrants; Iris has had to break completely with her own family to marry her husband. Even so, at every moment he threatens to betray her, not with another woman but by death.

So Beatie's family exists in a sociological middle; a dead center. Just above them, but extremely remote and very boring, are Iris' well-off brothers and sisters; her cruel mum. Below, Charles' Irish relatives. And far below, but only a stone's throw from the house where this family lives, exists a community of what we might think of as "the homeless," or "white trash," perhaps--glamorous (at least to Beatie's eyes) people who hunt and fish and grow contraband watercress and live off the land and are free.

These glorious savages (whom the author remembers lovingly from her grown-up vantage point) are flecked with scabs. Some of them are albinos. They have runny noses that have never felt a hanky, but they represent (as much as the rusted convict leg irons under Beatie's own house) a differentness, an undomesticity that comes from dad's side and that Beatie craves.

After these five stories about childhood, the tropics, countryside and the seduction of the bush come the "Sydney Stories"--the first two charming fillers, the last a novella, again, of the gentle bangings and nudgings of family life.

Gentrified Living

Now Anderson's characters live in apartments or gentrified old homes made new again. Now, "nature" is usually seen in a park between high rises (although, far away, a terrible drought causes bush fires and desperate ranchers are shooting their sheep).

This last story centers about Owen (who could be the good-natured older brother, Neal, grown up). Now, Owen, father of three grown children, has decided to leave his wife, Linda, who immediately goes crazy and starts spreading the most appalling tales about him. Now, Owen, instead of dealing with siblings, must fend off, or yearn for, the crazed attacks and affections of his grown children: Hester, a druggie, a clothes designer, madly in love with a gay man; Timothy, off in New Guinea somewhere, who keeps writing for information and more information, and Blanche, who could be the infuriating Sybil, grown up, married and sanctimonious, playing the tiresome grown-up to her put-upon father.

Wouldn't you know that Owen falls head-over-heels for Blanche's mother-in-law, who's married to the brutal Rex, whose brother is the feckless Clive, and so on? If you care about how families work, this is a weekday spent at home, an island of crocheted perfection.

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