Review - Writing Queensland

A Hatful of Cherries

by Cheryl Hayden

There is a disarming charm and clarity pervading this collection of short stories by Galician writer Felix Calvino, but also a tantalising difference in the story telling between those set in the country of his childhood and those set in contemporary Australian.

For this reviewer, the Galician stories provide the same sensory delight as experienced by viewing a simple woodcut. Some what one-dimensional and linear in treatment, and with far more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’ in the writing style, these stories unfold much as do traditional folktales, with life, death, fate and basic human need as common themes. In "Don't Touch Anything" life and death play out in an earthen-floored cottage as they might have done for millennia while in "An Old Sheep, rural life goes on in the face of the elements. Not that all Calvino’s characters are leading simple rustic lives lived passively against the rhythm of seasonal change. In "A Hatful of Cherries", a school teacher, her husband and housekeeper become objects of village curiosity as the quest to have a child takes over their lives, while in "Two Men at the Border , "Miguel and Jose" risk everything for freedom. In "Detour", fate plays poor Serafin a cruel hand when his car breaks down.

If the Galician stories leave one with the sense of having enjoyed an exhibition of wonderfully crafted woodcuts, the Australian stories are highly detailed paintings, filled with the complex drama of contemporary urban life: light and sound of action, choice and conflict, but most interestingly, full of the modern choices largely absent from the life of the Galician villages. "Restless Hands" takes us through the agonies of quitting smoking, "Winners and Losers" illuminates the joy of the unexpected return of a wallet lost in Melbourne’s Victoria Market and "A New Place" exposes the anticipation and thrill tossed by choice and chance in a Sydney nightclub.

Why the stories are placed as they are throughout the anthology is not clear, unless it’s to highlight the difference between life in rural Galicia with that in metropolitan Australia, for the almost random interspersing of the two ‘genres’ certainly achieves that most effectively, if not somewhat disarming.

While the stories in "A Hatful of Cherries" resonate with the austerity of folktales, they are not fables and do not set out to teach us lessons. Rather, they are illuminated observations of everyday human dramas and, if the writing has everything to teach us, it is about the joy that comes from reading such spare and sparkling prose.