Book Review: Claire Aman’s Bird Country is a debut collection with considerable weight

It is rare these days that a complete collection of short stories can sustain a sense of breathless wonder throughout each and every piece included in its pages. In a modern age of mobile phones and social media, short stories present us with an interesting challenge. While they are short enough to cater to our decreasing attention spans, they require us to surrender ourselves completely, and trust in the author’s ability to take us to a place of deep connection with a human moment. They ask us to work at deciphering meaning, to play with language and form, to oftentimes forgo the traditional patterns of narrative. Short stories- good short stories- ask that the reader engage with them on multiple levels. And because of the extra work that is required to appreciate them, all too frequently, the anthology is a genre that gets overlooked. But in the Australian short story scene, exciting things are happening, and I believe that Claire Aman’s debut collection Bird Country is one of them.

Winner of the Wet Ink/ CAL Prize, the Hal Porter Prize and the E.J. Brady Award, Claire Aman’s name is one which may be familiar to readers of regular short story publications like the Australian Book Review, the Award Winning Australian Stories collection, Southerly, Griffith Review, or the annual Margaret River Press anthology. The list of prior publications for the stories in Bird Country reads a little like the Australian Writers’ Marketplace Guide. What is clear from the breadth and timeline of these publications is that Bird Country is a collection which represents years of hard work. But it’s more than that too. The magic in these stories comes from a unique way of seeing and a unique way of recording. Each piece tells the story of an ordinary person who is dealing with their own personal demons.

From the first page, Aman plays with form and with narrative structure. In ‘Sailor’s Tale’, a family orchestrate the sea burial of their ‘Old Man’ (father, grandfather and father-in-law), and each character’s role in the family is described as though they were sailors navigating a rough sea. It begins “Last year in the spring, in the dying days of the old government, we set sail for the sea, the captain, the mate and I.” Throughout this piece, and indeed the collection as a whole, direct speech is largely avoided, and the important parts of conversations are relayed to us as summaries which reveal much about the characters who report them. These are singular characters, isolated people whose mindsets often reflect the landscape of the rural NSW setting that permeates the collection.

In ‘Milk Tray’, the mower-man returns treasures belonging to his elderly employer, nestled inside an old chocolate box, after finding them hidden out among the garden. In ‘The Day You Thought of Fortunatus’, a young woman working at a travelling carnival reflects on her lost potential when she sees her English teacher on sideshow alley. In ‘Ash Miss’, a woman recovering from a motorcycle accident which caused her to lose her hand bonds with a young boy over the training of a cinnamon grey budgerigar his father would never let him keep at home.

Recurring throughout this book, we find birds kept in cages, young women who fall from motorcycles, journeys with sad purposes and weddings that exacerbate family tensions. And what ties all the pieces together is the voices. The narrators in this collection may be down and out, but they’re still examining their lives, watching the world, thinking about the connections that they have made along the way. There’s something so incredibly relateable about that, and I think this is a collection that will bear reading and rereading, and rereading again in the years to come.

Bird Country is available now from Text Publishing Australia