The Lost of Syros by Emma Timpany.
Sittingbourne (UK): Cultured Llama Publishing (2015).
Reviewed by Sue Wootton.
Emma Timpany is a Dunedin-born writer, currently living in Cornwell. She has been published in literary magazines in the UK, Australia and NZ, and her short fiction has won several UK writing competitions. The Lost of Syros, her second book, contains 16 stories. Like her first, smaller, collection Over the Dam, The Lost of Syros contains gracefully written and memorable work. Here again is the subtle structuring, with landscape and climate providing both solid grounding and psychic foreshadowing for what follows. While places are never named, there is a strong sense of geography, and stories are recognisably set in New Zealand, Australia and England. For me, a Dunedinite, the several stories set in Otago had an extra attraction; Timpany’s descriptions of these familiar home-scapes are eye-openingly refreshing. Visual artists have long been fascinated by the astonishing light-and-dark dramas which unfold over the Peninsula and harbour. The north-easterly storm which hits Dunedin harbour in “The Day of the Storm” is an example of such an event. Timpany layers her canvas with luminous words: “The sky was paved with thick slabs of cloud; shafts of gold light, squeezing between the cracks, fell like spotlights on the wild, khaki waves and then the clouds split open and great blobs of rain began to pelt down”.
Refreshing too, are Timpany’s evocations of late 20th century New Zealand, and especially the experience of being a child at this time. The stories possess authentic sensory details which surely must be derived from the author’s personal experience. “Don’t be a derr”, one girl tells another in ‘The Day of the Storm’. In ‘One of the Best’, the old wash house is now “warm and dry with three long shelves under the window where my father used to store the dahlia tubers he dug up from the garden each winter, and shallow trays filled with white Borax powder to preserve velvet-petalled, deep purple pansies forever”. There’s no pat retreat into nostalgia, however. Such details are given a fresh presence on the page; Timpany commits to making art from memory’s material.
Katherine Mansfield is a strong presence in this collection, with several stories re-imagining events from her biography, including time spent in Cornwall (where Timpany now lives). Mansfield’s ghost manifests in present-day Dunedin, as “best friends” Fiona and Laura cycle towards the Taiaroa Head albatross colony on the Peninsula. As an albatross hangs in the air, “on wide white wings … eyeing them”, Laura marvels. Fiona squints at it, and remarks, “You know Katherine used to call Ida ‘albatross’”. But Mansfield infuses all the stories, even those in which she is not explicitly named, as Timpany takes Mansfield’s themes of location and dislocation and reworks them with a contemporary eye. The Lost of Syros contains images and stories which remain with me days after finishing the book. It’s a fine collection, to which I’ll return, knowing that it will reveal layers I’ve yet to discover.
Sue Wootton’s most recent publication is Out of Shape, a letterpress portfolio of poems hand set and printed by Canberra letterpress artist Caren Florance (Ampersand Duck, 2013). She lives in Dunedin and is the editor of the Monday Poem column in the Otago Daily Times. Her website is suewootton.com.