Jennifer Down‘s book of short stories, Pulse Points, opens with a story about two men who are driving home from visiting one of their fathers at a retirement home, when they discover an injured person lying in the middle of the road. It is a shocking moment, which leaves both men reeling, and yet, the story is not about whether or not the person in the middle of the road is going to be all right or not. It’s about people, and the way that we respond to crisis, whether that crisis be the aging of our parents, or the breakdown of a relationship, or the choices people make daily about whether or not to do the right thing. These are the pulse points, the small moments that add up, and shine a light on who we are as people, and these are the threads that hold this collection together.
Pulse Points, as a collection, presents us with a wide array of voices, showing us mere moments in their lives, and hinting at what the larger significance might be. The collection covers sexuality, mental illness, chronic illness, suicide, sexual assault, family and more, all in just over 200 pages. But the stories in this collection speak volumes.
In ‘Aokigahara’, the piece that won Down the ABR’s Elizabeth Jolley Prize in 2014, a young medical student travels to Japan’s Sea of Trees, making a pilgrimage in memory of her brother that will move even the most unemotional reader. In ‘Vaseline’, a teenage girl growing up without a mother is forced to grow up quickly in a place she feels is a dead end. Whilst in ‘Dogs’, a group of teenage boys take a sick joke one step too far. Down’s ability to inhabit the minds of these characters is eerily good, and no two voices in this collection seem alike. Her prose is tight and original. This is the sort of book that bibliophiles will delight in underlining, collecting those sentences too good to leave on the page.
It has long been a hallmark of a great short story to take a fine-toothed comb to the seemingly insignificant moments of our lives and give them meaning in terms of the bigger picture. Pulse Points is a collection by a writer who clearly understands this (and a writer who has studied her craft, as her references to Carver in one of the pieces indicates). It is a collection which will bring you to your knees.
Pulse Points is available now through Text Publishing