In other times, Olga Masters might never have written. The Australian novelist came to fiction late in life; the mother of seven children, she took up writing in her mid-50s and was dead of cancer within a decade. Masters wrote about people who seldom find themselves in stories. Her characters seem to stare back at her, like photographic subjects: They wait without vanity to be captured and legitimized.
"Amy's Children" and "A Long Time Dying," both available in this country for the first time, are tales of blundering lives. In each, the focus is on women: wives and daughters turned on the lathe of male inattention, who have every reason to give up love but don't. Men disappoint them, die on them, desert them, but they seek solace in a coveted object or an offhand exchange. Masters' prose offers another kind of consolation, a record so vivid that its fidelity seems like a reprieve.
"A Long Time Dying" is a collection of stories, a gallery of family portraits. It offers a chronicle of small-town life in the Australian outback that is as rich in psychological acuity as in demographic detail. Here we have the spoiled Rossmores and the Jusseps who farm their land, fighting off the Depression and their neighbors' scorn. Most of the families in the book--and the book is about families--fall between the Rossmores and the Jusseps on the economic scale. But Masters' work is never simply sociological; witness the way she evokes poverty, in the expression in a picture of Jesus embarrassed by how poorly He's displayed.
In one of the book's finest chapters, "A Haircut on Saturday," a selfish young woman takes two children to visit the local widow. Every gesture is a rebuke: The children are offered only the fruit that's rotten and made to sit outside on the broken stoop. When the young woman calls their father by his first name, they bridle at the flirtation. The little girl senses longing in her father's reply, witnessing in a glance his discontent with the mother she adores.
Masters' prose has the effect of glimpses caught from a passing train or stolen through an open window; surreptitious and all the sweeter for being uninvited, undeserved. The short, sudden sentences are like telegraph bursts. They have the breathlessness of gossip, giving these tales of exhausted women and desperate men a surprising energy. Even the personality of the outback town seems to insinuate itself, in sentences spit out with the force of collective spite.
In "Not the Marrying Kind," the community preys on the loneliness of a young woman, whose unmarried mother abandoned her at birth. When a young man takes a sudden interest, she blossoms, protected from ridicule by the unexpected promise of love. One day, she opts not to walk past the place she knows he'll be waiting. Her fate--now she will never marry--seems the inevitable result of the route she chose. This is Masters at her best, assigning to negligible choices a ravaging consequence.
Yet it is precisely this intensity of scrutiny that makes "Amy's Children" a tedious read. The book confirms Masters' skill at miniature. She cannot negotiate the larger canvas of a full-scale novel. "Amy's Children" revisits the subject and characters of "Not the Marrying Kind," telling the story of a woman who deserts her three small daughters. But the book's focus is uncertain, and every idle thought or casual introduction threatens to divert the narrative. The work is derailed also by erratic shifts of sympathy: Amy's eldest daughter is at first the novel's emotional sentry, but by the end of the book the dreamy, buffeted Amy has become its center.
In "Amy's Children," Masters' plainness of style is a nuisance, and the lives move so slowly that the lack of momentum confirms their insignificance. In "A Long Time Dying," she hardly ever goes wrong. Masters makes us see the world again, more acutely. In other times, both she and the people she writes about might have "sank unwept into oblivion," to borrow George Eliot's phrase. We're lucky they have not.