Over the Dam by Emma Timpany.
Morpeth (UK): Red Squirrel Press (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. Over the Dam, her first book, contains five short stories, including two originally published by takahē. The book takes its title from the first story in the collection, which won the 2013 Sara Park Memorial Short Story competition.
In Timpany’s stories, the hidden interior of things makes itself manifest in unexpected ways. ‘A Bird so Rare’ makes this explicit in its opening paragraph:
The hotel’s interior décor – the wood panelling in the dining room, the columns in the atrium, the startlingly beautiful carved mantelpiece in the bar – seemed charming at first glance. But as they sat down to afternoon tea, they noticed holes in the panelling on either side of the door revealing not, as they would have expected, an authentic heart of old oak beneath a time grimed surface, but hairy strands of yellow fibreglass.
‘They’ are a married couple, whose reactions to this fake interior announce disparate attitudes. To one it doesn’t matter; to the other it “makes all the difference in the world”. This small, uncluttered exchange is characteristic of Timpany’s deft handling of character and relationship. Place too is swiftly and vividly evoked in economical syntax, adjectives sparingly applied and no word wasted:
Stunning heat fell on the little town; the lake was a blue plate, the mountains weirdly still. And the smell of them, the mountains, in the air, old and fierce and mineral. Dry grass, crushed thyme, dark pines, the gravelly margins of the road, unrolling as the car moved over it, tarmac melting at its fringes. No other cars on the road: everyone else was at the lakeshore, beneath the willows, or swimming in the bowl of fallen sky (‘Over the Dam’).
But this is like that photograph which, once developed, turns out to have caught a ghost on camera, a haunting we didn’t see when we snapped the shot. Here the haunting has menace: the mountains are “weirdly still”, the pines are “dark”, thyme is “crushed”. The focus, we realise, is on the “margins”, where human control, like the tarmac, is “melting”. And the protagonist, a young girl called Amy, is extremely isolated in this viewpoint: “everyone else” is swimming and picnicking, apparently oblivious to these ghosts in the scene. The story begins to subtly echo Amy’s adolescent or pre-adolescent anxieties and awakenings. She alone has entered this fringe realm, and the rest of the day unfolds with corresponding unease. A nursery which should be open is closed. The nursery’s plants are “stunted” and not expected to thrive. A dog growls and bares its teeth. A biker roars out of nowhere and vanishes over the bank, “quicker than a blink”. Amy’s father stops to help, but somehow he’s the one who ends up injured, going nowhere, “his hands opening and closing on the steering wheel”. “What if you never get back?” Amy thinks, and her question hangs, unanswered as the story ends: “why could she not shake off the feeling that they were somehow lost, that they were now travelling in entirely the wrong direction, that they were on their way to anywhere but home.”
Timpany is an observant writer, who exercises fine discernment over how much to convey. Her restraint serves the stories beautifully, quietly tightening the tension of the narrative in the lead-up to the protagonist’s transformational moment. This is an accomplished first collection, a real pleasure to read.
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.