The Rest is Weight

THE REST IS WEIGHT
Jennifer Mills
UQP, $19.95

A horse dangles between the twin poles of movement and suspension, comedy and horror, life and death. This striking cover image (drawing on Maurizio Cattelan's installation artwork Novecento), which twists our intrigue into revulsion and our surprise into dread, is just a taste of what's bubbling beneath the surface in this, the first collection of Jennifer Mills' award-winning short stories.

Though many of its tales have been published elsewhere and span several years of writing, their ebb and flow here feels both natural and deliberate. One by one, the characters take us into their interior worlds, casting us loose within a universe scarred by unease.

If you enjoyed her critically acclaimed second novel, Gone (2011), about a man's gruelling journey home across the outback - which earned Mills her spot as one of The Sydney Morning Herald's best young Australian novelists for 2012 - you'll find yourself on relatively familiar ground. Many of these stories also travel to the heart of ourselves across the belly of our country.

Mills, who lives in Alice Springs, gives us an Australia haunted by the promise and poison of its geography. In this place, which offers salvation as easily as it does madness or death, her characters find themselves on the open road. A prison escapee hitches a ride to freedom; a middle-aged divorcee embarks on a journey of self-discovery in a weathered old campervan; a young woman sets out to find her last living relative; a trucker seeks companionship in a roadhouse as his father lies dying at home. In their search for whatever eludes them - be it resolution, connection, love, freedom, meaning or destruction - some find what they're looking for, while others are not so lucky, but nothing is ever as it first appears.

Stepping off the open road, the terrain's no less unsettling. Showing her incredible range as a writer, Mills confidently moves from urban to country settings, home and abroad, teasing out connections between ordinary people and their surroundings.

Whether caught within the wheels of urban expansion in Sydney and China, or trapped within the brutal impoverishment of rural Mexico, issues of identity, sexuality, ethnicity, alienation and mental illness rise to the surface unexpectedly and, often, uncomfortably. Though some of these stories are definitely lighter in tone than others - and are often peppered with wry humour and insight - each, in their own way, sinks our moral perceptions further into darkness, leaving only faint shadows for us to hang on to.

Perhaps the scariest question plaguing her readers is what happens when you go looking for something and find nothing at all. For this reviewer, the standout tales are Look Down with Me and Moth, two works of raw, disquieting horror that should probably come with a warning not to be read before bed. Both use the child's perspective to reveal that what's lurking beneath the surface could very well skin the entire world to bone.

If this all sounds terribly bleak, you wouldn't be completely wrong - this trip through the emotional wastelands pulls us in many directions, building a new world, only to break it again every few pages.

But while reaching the end is something of a relief, it's almost impossible to put down. Mills is a compelling storyteller with her own defined style and unflinching eye; her finely crafted words become salve for the wounds. Lovers of literary fiction, as well as those unafraid of the great, wide open, won't be disappointed.

The story The Rest is Weight first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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