Book Review: Australia Day by Melanie Cheng is a stunning debut that takes its place among Australian short story greats

Australia is undoubtedly going through a renaissance of short fiction—from collections by household names (at least to lovers of the form) such as Tony Birch, to stunning debuts like Australia Day by Melanie Cheng, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

It goads me to hear anyone say that they hate the short form, particularly when there is so much variety within this genre. ‘Short stories’ is a category almost as wide ranging as that of ‘fiction’ and pieces which fit into this genre could also fit in others such as fantasy, science fiction, romance. Just this year, Diana Gabaldon brought out a collection of short stories set in the Outlander universe, and A Song of Ice and Fire author, George R. R. Martin frequently releases short pieces set in the world we know and love from Game of Thrones. But it’s the Australian collections which get me particularly excited, and one of the best collections I have read this year is Australia Day by Victorian writer, Melanie Cheng.

Cheng was the recipient of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and her debut collection has been published by Text Publishing, a publishing house with a reputation for punching above its weight when it comes to Australian fiction. Australia Day was a worthy winner, and makes a nice addition to Text’s catalogue, as it is a sharp, insightful and extremely well-written collection which focuses on the central idea of what an Australian is. The stories in this collection ponder this question from a number of vantage points. In the titular story ‘Australia Day’, Stanley— a young man from China who is studying in Australia—remarks on the fact that a startling number of people who own Australian flags would still support the White Australia policy, only to discover that Jess, the friend with whom he will be celebrating Australia Day (and has a crush on), has a father who has an Australian flag bumper sticker on his car. In ‘Big Problems’, Leila, a young woman of mixed British and Syrian heritage, travels to Uluru and is stunned by the attitudes of her fellow tourists. In ‘Hotel Cambodia’, Melissa—a young doctor—is struck by the sense of falseness she feels when doing aid work in Cambodia “with its reputation for tragedy”, after “Melbourne failed to provide the validation she’d been searching for.” While there are many other themes in this collection, such as motherhood, loss, and family, this theme—that of changing notions of Australianness—is the core concept that ties this collection together. It is beautifully done.

What Melanie Cheng’s stories all have in common is a tight understanding of the form, and how it works. Each piece is perfectly paced; the dialogue is all carefully chosen to both move plot along and build character, and the endings in this story give closure while still allowing the reader time to think.

This is a collection which belongs in every true short story lover’s collection, next to The Weight of A Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill, and even The Boat by Nam Le. This is the kind of book you can read in one sitting, or space out one story a day to savour the experience.

Australia Day is available now through Text Publishing