SHIRL by Wayne Marshall
Guest Review by Naomi Turner
Jo has recommended many books to me over the years, and all have been superlatively superb, but it seemed to me they followed a certain pattern. One evening, after a wine or two had been imbibed, I boldly stated that I was going to start a sub-blog of Jo’s book blog reviewing the books she recommended to me. It would be easy, I blathered on, because all of them would essentially follow this pattern:
1. Opening chapters: almost everyone dies
2. Middle section: Existential angst
3. Ending: But there is hope/ redemption because, nature.
But the second important thing to note is that by the time Jo had sent me her next recommendation – Wayne Marshall’s Shirl, the world had changed, and my reading was completely clouded by an unexpected pandemic-coloured lens.
Published this year, some of the stories in this debut collection are seven years in the making. And at any other moment of time, the strange alienated (literally, at times) element of Marshall’s writing could easily be read within the frame of his then recent cancer diagnosis. But now, reading The Telexican Brides, it is impossible not to take this story as a reminder that we are never as in control as we think we are, and that there are consequences for making the assumption.
Incredibly, one of the stories is, for reals, called Our Year Without Footy. With alien life forms who destroy members of the town for disobeying social distancing (from footy) measures. Is Wayne Marshall the Prophet of Doom for our times? If nothing else, it is surely the title of a book we will be seeing on the shelves next year – just not in the fiction section.
The Magicians features the arrival of a mysterious stranger who gets the whole town hooked on to ‘TV’ – a drug that causes the townsfolk to rise up out of the apathy of their day-to-day interactions, and see each other with a whole new appreciation. When it kicks in, they hug ‘with the intensity of people reunited after some bitter, bloody war.’
Later, a yowie risks a venture into the human world after the traumatic death of his mate. He is desperate for social connection, but soon discovers that people come with layers and complications that are not always worth it.
There’s an allegorical quality to many of Marshall’s stories – with characters who narrate with ‘we’ and ‘our’ to signal that we’re not here to get to know them personally, but to look on at something happening to everyone, all at the same time (also sounding pretty familiar, right?)
The book closes with a story that loops back on and twists elements of an earlier story, teasing the reader with the thought that EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW IS WRONG.
And in fact, Marshall’s writing is peppered with the kind of playful, just-plausible-enough sort of detail mastered by Ryan O’Neil in Their Brilliant Careers. You can imagine both writers sitting back, gleefully imagining the moment a reader might just be tempted to resort to a Google fact check.
Shirl is, by turns, hyper-masculine, joyous, other-worldly, fantastical, and at times utterly devastating. It is a roller-coaster in which anything can happen at any time. Which may just make it the perfect accompaniment to a world in which all the rules have changed overnight.
And somebody give Wendy Alice Thompson her own Wikipedia biography page already.
About our Guest Reviewer:
Naomi Turner lives in western Victoria with her three sons, and is an occasional writer for hire.
She was first published at age seven with a single edition of The Giant Vacuum Cleaner. Having tired of the wild improbabilities of household appliances, she began a career as a corporate writer in Melbourne and Sydney before making a tree-change thirteen years ago. Former hobbies used to include book trips to Port Fairy and unintentionally touching her own face. This is her first pandemic.