The twenty-seven short stories contained in John Kinsella’s latest collection of fiction, Crow’s Breath, form an unsettling reading experience. Set across a range of locations, but frequently in the Western Australian wheatbelt region, environmental concerns are a consistent presence but do not dominate the narratives within, which are trained on the intricacies and insecurities of human relationships and identities. A diverse cast of characters and range of personal situations are presented to the reader, but are linked by a common ground of uncertainty.
Central to the human conflicts explored are issues of insularity, alienation, and lack of comprehension, which extend to the world around each character. Multiple voices can arise in the same stories. In “The Little Flower of Forest Pool”, referring to a humiliating nickname for the focal schoolboy narrator, there is a moment of equally delicate and coarse contact between humanity and the natural world by a new, unnamed narrator:
Flowers of the forest can be subtle yet brilliant. The forest is no "bed of roses", but diverse and fascinating. Some of us spend a lifetime studying orchids that flower underground, and blossoms that flourish without exaggeration in the otherworldly canopy. But the Little Flower of Forest Pool is a species constantly fighting extinction … I remember Harry, the Little Flower of Forest Pool, a pressed specimen in the pages of learning. The unlearning of school and its extracurricular manifestations. And I don’t have a thick skin. I will never have one. (61)
The “red flower” of blistered bruises upon the child’s back, caused by crashing into the ice of a dammed creek, becomes emblematic of callous indifference to a child’s developing sense of self and parental/adult assignation of identities at the cost of self determination. The visitation of the forest pool by the unwilling students and detached adult guardians create a sense of ritual, but the “coming of age” is an unwelcome and unfitting one. Any feeling of peace or success that could have been generated in this setting is off-set by descriptions of the environmental space itself, the karri trees’ canopies “different planets” (56). This particular story is saturated with unattributed dialogue of teachers, students, perhaps the environment itself, organically built into the internal thoughts of the young male narrator. Recurring motifs of height and inaccessibility are shared by the exploitation of the young and the natural world alike.
Amongst the collection are frequent, sharp moments of horror. The brutality and ugliness of racism is showcased in “Golden Gloves”. Death is intermittently incidental, accidental, and intentional across Crow’s Breath. “The Tip” takes a particularly grim twist in this direction, in which a "friendly" rivalry over recycled materials becomes the means for entrapment and murder. Halloween celebrations get in touch with their cautionary, demonic roots in “The Thin Veil”, and more quotidian shows of compassion are shown to seldom go unpunished, especially in “Feeding the Dogs”, though are more optimistically, if confrontationally countered in “Need of Assistance”.
The suffering of animal figures in Crow’s Breath is another point for sternly critical reflection on human interactions with the natural world. The arbitrarily delineated roles of working dog/pet dog, enforced by the blunt patriarch of a farmer in “A Particular Friendship” result in the callous poisoning of all five working and pet animals when these roles are crossed. The farmer’s twin children, responsible for letting the dogs play together, are stricken and rendered in terms similar to the dying dogs when they make this discovery:
So he poisoned them. Strychnine. He killed the kelpies. He killed Bluebell and Captain. He fed them baited meat and watched them die. Their death throes looked like a bizarre game, something the twins would play. It has to be said, his children were odd.
… When the twins, home from school, rushed in calling, Where are the dogs? he just said, They’re gone. And keep away from the old well. The twins stared. They blinked very slowly. They trembled and clutched hands. They whimpered. (73)
Kinsella is utterly critical in his showcase of such arbitrary control over life and death, as well as the inappropriately human means of defining animal communication, behaviour, and value. Notions of value are linked to a narrow-minded patriarchal figure, while the comparatively free-thinking children are there to be inadvertently crushed. Human interference with the natural world has catastrophic results, but is shown to have been heartbreakingly easy to avoid.
In Crow’s Breath, the struggles of the individual human characters are symptoms of a broader scale of struggle for survival in remote communities, or socially disunited spaces, as well as being sharp indictments of more specific human vanities and values. Environmentalist concerns are forefront in the descriptions of much of the settings, but are subtly encoded alongside the more personal struggles of each short story’s feature narrator. The range of personalities and figures presented are visceral in their detail. On a second reading and as a linked body of work, Crow’s Breath is almost like an autopsy: points where life are extinguished or put under pressure are brought under the microscope, assessed, and returned without consolation, but with the underlying demand that more needs to be done. Rather than being an overtly moralising treatise, Crow’s Breath displays a resolute, cautionary undercurrent, rooted in its unoffered resolutions.
John Kinsella, Crow’s Breath. Yarraville, VIC: Transit Lounge, 2015. ISBN 9781921924811