Before he left the family, my father worked as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. He travelled from chemist to chemist with samples of pills and lotions and pastes in the back of his Valiant station wagon. The best sales representatives visited modern chemists in the city and suburbs. My father had to drive long distances to country chemists who had stocked the same product lines for years and weren’t interested in anything new.
Carrie Tiffany and Gregory Day were the joint winners of the 2011 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Tiffany’s story was titled Before He Left the Family. You can read it here at the ABR website. It is also in my anthology of The Story: 100 Great Short Stories Written by Women chosen by Victoria Hislop as well as The BBC International Short Story Award book published 30 September 2012.
Bill @The Australian Legend hosts a Gen Week every January that focuses on Australian Women Writers. 2023 is Gen 5 “the generation of women who began writing in the 1990s up till now (early 2023)“. Bill has picked out two major trends from this period – the rise of First Nations literature and the use of Science Fiction, in particular climate fiction/dystopian and what I call speculative fiction. There are obviously more, and readers can take their Gen 5 reading in any direction they choose. With this in mind, I’ve been searching through my short story collections for possibilities this past week or so.
Carrie Tiffany was born in Yorkshire, England in 1965. Her family emigrated to Perth, WA in the early 1970’s. After finishing school, she took up a job as a park ranger in Central Australia. In 1988 she moved to Melbourne to take up agricultural journalism. Her debut novel was Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005). Thanks to her previous careers, Tiffany not only views the landscape differently to most of us, she is also
…interested in the myth and symbolism around the idea of the head of the family and the father. I’m probably interested in pushing that more broadly to the universal father, and then I’m interested in masculinity and in men.Carrie Tiffany | The Garret podcast
This may have had something to do with her parents marriage falling apart when she was 11, and her father moving all the way to the other side of the country to Sydney.
Before He Left the Family is the story of a family breakdown told from the perspective of the teenage son, Kevin. Both boys know that their parents only married because their mum got pregnant on the first date.
It was not a happy household, Dad drank too much and both boys took solace in the Playboy magazines that their dad kept in the garage. The separation was even messier.
My father never came to the house again. He took a job interstate. The telephone calls became less and less frequent, then they stopped. The first year, with the anticipation that he might write or ring on our birthdays or at Christmas, was confusing, but things settled down after that.
Kevin reveals later in the story that his father had told him one night that he was in love with another woman and really wanted to marry her instead, but he had to marry his mother because she was pregnant…with him. As time goes by, Kevin becomes concerned that people think he is his mother’s lover rather than a son…he regularly looses himself in the fantasy of Playboy photos and stories…the tone he uses to tells us about this lets us know he thinks they are ridiculous and not real, yet they also somehow tap into some deeper wish fulfilment or hopefulness centred around his father.
Stories about belonging and loss always stir my sympathies. Kevin clearly wanted to find something about his father that he could connect with or admire. His final summation broke my heart.
I want Nathan to understand that our mother was never going to make things work with our father. She was the wrong girl. And because she was the wrong girl, Nathan and I were the wrong sons. It could never have been any other way.
I’m going to throw out a wild claim for consideration that another trend in Australian women Gen 5 writers is intergenerational family trauma.
A large number of the books I have read in the past decade or so, feature family dysfunction, marriage breakdowns, trauma, as well as the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of children. Unhappy families have been written about since time immemorial, or at least since Tolstoy. But there is a new millenium bleakness or grimness to many of the unhappy family stories being written at the moment. With all we have supposedly learnt about human relations, we still keep on making the same mistakes. Marrying the wrong person for the wrong reasons, dependency on drugs and alcohol, passing on our own suffering to our children, repeat. A large number of these stories are written from the child’s point of view.
Perhaps it has something to do with all the research now available – beginning in the 1970’s – about the effects of trauma on war veterans. It didn’t take long for the psychologists to make the link to other types of trauma. All this data, all this knowledge about PTSD is now being fed into our stories. The rise in First Nations literature during this time may also be linked to our growing understanding about intergenerational trauma and grief. I wonder?
Is this trend towards grim domestic realism in literature something you’ve noticed too? Is it different from the unhappy family stories of old?
- Gen 5 Reading week runs from 15-22 January.
Dates Read: 8 January 2023
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.