Review: ‘Heat and Light’ by Ellen van Neerven

heat and light

*This review was developed at the Stella Prize/ DWF critics masterclass with Jo Case and Melinda Harvey.

**This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

It is the uniqueness of structure and voice that makes Heat and Light stand out. The stories in this debut collection by Ellen van Neerven are not entirely stand-alone, nor are they entirely connected. The book is divided into three distinct parts. Similar themes echo through each, but ultimately they function quite independently.

Given the number of different characters in the book, it is impressive that each has a distinctly individual voice. In other interviews, van Neerven has mentioned that some of the characters have been in her head for a while. Some of the stories have had earlier publications. S&J, a piece about two girls trying to define themselves beyond their skin colour, sexuality and friendship, was first published in the prestigious McSweeney’s Quarterly, alongside short story heavyweights Tony Birch, Tara June Wing and Melissa Lucashenko.

The time that has been taken to piece together these characters and stories is evident, as Heat and Light doesn’t show any uncertainty – there is no echo of ‘debut novelist’ in its pages. Her characters carry the necessary spark to make them spring to life, and each demands attention from the reader. Each voice is given the opportunity to share stories that are uncomfortable, confronting, tender, familial, searching.

Publishers are hesitant when it comes to publishing short story collections. This tide is now turning. In the same year that Ellen van Neerven won the David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Author (and the subsequent publication of her novel by UQP), Maxine Beneba Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for her debut short story collection, Foreign Soil. Both books went on to be longlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize, where they joined another collection Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. Perhaps many of the important cultural and social conversations that we are currently having with literature are best had through the short story form. Or perhaps, in our time-poor society, we are turning more to short stories as a way of accessing literature.

It is impossible to drive a single narrative through all three parts of the book and trying to force one would warp the ease of the stories. The parts could easily be read independently, although there are structural and thematic similarities between Heat and Light that unite the two. In terms of cohesion, it is Water that sits further apart, with even the title pointing to its exclusion. It is a wonderful piece to read, a speculation on Australia’s future that draws parallels between the errors of an overzealous new President’s attempts to make amends and the historical treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population. However it feels slightly jarring between the other two collections, differing both in the speculative setting and the length.

If there are links between all three parts of the book they are thematic ones. Themes of love (familiar and romantic), displacement, gender and country are present throughout, explored in ways that beg the following questions.What are our responsibilities to each other as Australians? As humans? As family? As lovers? Are we ever able to mend what has been broken? These questions echo through each of the stories, including the first, where a young Amy Kresinger discovers the truth about who her grandmother is.

I found Pearl lying on the ground a long way from the lake. She had called me there with her whistle. She looked half-dead.

            The jealous part of me could have kept going but I helped her. I felt a bunch of guilt that I hadn’t done anything. And I had been one of those who had talked about her at school, and after I finished school, I had helped in outcasting her. She had come here to the town for a fresh start and she hadn’t got it. I got her up and walked her to the lookout where I know she stayed for a time.

Heat and Light is an extraordinary debut that sets a high benchmark for whatever topic van Neerven sets her sights on next.

Teachers notes will be available soon on the Stella Prize website.

The book can be purchased here.

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