If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
Publisher: Scribe Publications (Australia and New Zealand)
The title of Robin Black’s debut short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is an intriguing premise. What would she tell us, and why doesn’t she love us? We’re a little bruised from being excluded, but still curious. We come to know that the title perfectly reflects the earnest and considered tone of Black’s work. This bright-eyed honesty underpinned by a glassy covertness makes for a title that’s a fitting introduction to the stories within.
Black’s protagonists, impressively diverse, are poised on the edge of change and transition. In ‘Immortalizing John Parker’, seventy-year-old Clara Feinberg paints portraits for a living. She is mourning the loss of her lover, and is struggling to continue her work when she is commissioned to paint the portrait of John Parker by his wife, Katherine. She initially attributes John’s ‘dullness’ to personality; however, the reality is far more haunting. The pace is more akin to that of a novel than a short story; perfectly measured and illuminated by Black’s restrained style.
It’s this restrained style of Black’s that works most effectively in her younger protagonists. In ‘Harriet Elliot’, the characters are so keenly honest it actually pangs. ‘We all nodded. We all believed the same things,’ says the protagonist. This is just one of many of Black’s stories that stick for days. ‘Harriet Elliot’ is the story of a schoolgirl confronted by her own temporality with the arrival of the ‘new girl’, the eponymous Harriet Elliot. At home, the protagonist’s sister blames her for their parents’ disintegrating relationship. ‘At night, as I lay in the shoulder of the hallway light, she would walk over and pull my door shut tight, leaving me to lie there in the dark.’ This kind of subtle cruelty and the taut, authorial voice compares to that in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.
The sequence of the stories could have been given more consideration. The seriously good ending to ‘Harriet Elliot’ is somewhat let down as it is annoyingly reminiscent of the conclusion of the preceding story, ‘Immortalizing John Parker’. Both endings finish with the word ‘gone’ and have a similar premise. Because they’re sequential, ‘Immortalizing John Parker’ unnecessarily comes off the slighter of the two, and the brilliance that could have belonged to the conclusion of ‘Harriet Elliot’ is slightly dulled.
Each of Black’s stories is brimming with different narratives, and it is often the peripheral characters that are most engaging. Cathleen, the ex-wife of the protagonist Jeremy in ‘A Country Where You Once Lived’ offers glinting one-liners that give an emotionally demanding narrative a necessary relief.
Black’s work is perhaps not best read after a bad day; she doesn’t shy away from her characters’ flaws and only illuminates how mean we can all be – at times, at least. In the closing story, ‘The History of the World’, the brother of Kate Rodgers, who has been left by her husband for another woman, thinks to himself that his sister sounds like ‘the kind of wife that gets herself left’, as she berates him for driving too fast. It’s a heartless thought, but it’s this honesty that makes Black’s work so faithful to human impatience.
It’s the closing image of each story that lingers after finishing them. A broken, yellow beach chair marooned on an empty soccer field in ‘Pine’ offers a haunting representation of the lonely protagonist. And in the ‘The History of the World’, Kate finds herself alone in a small Italian village, having travelled to Italy to get over said ruined marriage. There’s a flower festival on, the small town’s buildings and streets covered in flower petals depicting significant scenes from world history. In a passing breeze, ‘the colours before her seem to exhale, in a sigh’, and Kate is aware that within hours, it will all be swept away. Black might be suggesting hope for her characters, but it’s a tentative optimism. They too just want to be loved.
Belle Place is an editorial assistant at Affirm Press and writes for various monthly digital publications from Melbourne and Sydney.