Short stories are tricky things to get right. Compared to a novel, writers have a fraction of the space to tell us where we are and who we’re speaking with, and to engineer an event that will leave their characters changed in some way. On top of this, they need to create a rich story-world, one that continues to live long after the story itself has ended.
Chloe Wilson manages to achieve all of this in her debut short story collection, Hold Your Fire. This is writing that breathes. Wilson, who has previously published two poetry collections, brings her razor-sharp observations to the world of fiction. The effect is superb; her stories are like perfume, the human psyche distilled down to its darkest and most essential parts.
I love how playful this collection is. Bizarre things happen in these stories, ranging from the fantastical (like the neighbour in ‘The Leopard Next Door’ who brings home a wild cat and suffers the consequences) to the mundane (a candid discussion about kidney stones over dinner in ‘Monstera’). In this way, the collection reminds me a lot of Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots anthology. Except Wilson isn’t afraid to lead us into some more disturbing territory. Some of her stories are deliciously absurd; there’s the ex-nurse in ‘Blood Bag’ who fertilises her vegetable garden with stolen donations, and the actor in ‘Break Character’ who falls too far into the fantasy of his latest role. With their dark undercurrents and malevolent edges, these fictional worlds feel a lot like Wonderland.
But it’s the titular ‘Hold Your Fire’ that is this collection’s crowning jewel. Exploring the Cold War-style standoff within a modern family, this piece is a masterclass in tension – how it can be passed around and smothered with faux politeness, but never fully extinguished. Wilson’s sparse prose is offset perfectly by her sardonic narrator, who finds her own ways to let off steam as the conflict escalates; but her fury is a constant crackle beneath the surface. An expertly crafted work.
If there’s a golden thread that strings this collection together, it’s the sensory qualities of Wilson’s writing. Anything to do with sound or taste or texture becomes tangible – and the more visceral they are, the better. There’s an element of disgust running through many of these stories; several characters suffer from IBS and other digestive issues, or otherwise find themselves in decaying environments. In ‘Frogs’ Legs’, we meet our narrator floating in a grimy pool, flicking cigarette ash at approaching insects. Everything is coated in a sticky brown film. She doesn’t seem to be bothered by her filthy surroundings. Although these stories can be an uncomfortable read, they’re not completely off-putting. Wilson shows us these unpleasant scenes in the same way that children will gleefully point out a slug or a glob of snot; sickened and fascinated, we can’t look away.
If you prefer to steer clear of anything too repellent, rest assured that Hold Your Fire also explores the more sublime facets of the sensory world. The attention to detail is beautiful. A personal favourite of mine is ‘The Drydown,’ where we get gorgeous descriptions of perfumes and the way their scent changes over time. Even a synthetic perfume sounds luxurious, morphing from a fruity cloud, ‘like a piñata exploding’, to a ‘languorous, hot-afternoon’ core. You can almost smell it through the nutmeggy and inky scent of the pages.
Like any good anthology, the beginning of each story feels like plunging headfirst into a swirling whirlpool – you could get spat out anywhere. In each of her stories, Wilson transports us somewhere new: a wellness retreat on a tropical island, where all is not as it seems; an elegant home, which also happens to be the site of a recent murder; the clammy depths of an old well. No matter where you end up, it’s best to lie back and let the swell guide you through, watching the story unfold itself in its own unexpected ways.
Hold Your Fire is perfect for dark adventures that engage all of your senses. Fans of the playful storylines of Cate Kennedy and the insight and control of Helen Garner will find something familiar, but unique, in Chloe Wilson’s collection.
Reviewed by Melina Bunting, The Book Bird’s guest book reviewer.