The late Masters, an Australian, left five books of fiction, and this one--like A Long Time Dying and Amy's Children--concerns the desolate lives of small-town Australians from the Depression to the modern era. As her earliest written collection, however, it's not as sure-handed as either of the other two. Despite the short, staccato paragraphs and the apprentice nature of these pieces, the slice-of-life portraits reveal a world where there are few pleasures other than those provided by imagining a softer past. Existence is brutish, and isolation of one kind or another the norm. In the title story (one of several narrated by children), two unloved children--upon learning that they are being sent away to yet another foster home--scrawl obscenities on the bathroom wall. The suggestion of repressed emotion and its consequences is everywhere apparent here--and elsewhere. The mood is somber, and the irony heavy in its D.H. Lawrence-like insistence on humankind's impulsive brutality--indeed, most of these people are victims. In ""Leaving Home,"" Sylvia plans to go Sydney for a job and a new life, but the story documents the frustrations that keep her from her goal. ""A Young Man's Fancy"" contrasts present-day marital dreariness to the golden world of memory; and ""The Snake and Bad Tom"" dramatizes a Darwinian situation in which a father plays off his normal children against their retarded brother while the passive, helpless mother looks on. For the most part, all the women here are helpless in a society in which it is everything to be male; Masters' later collections go further in developing a proto-feminism. Another strong performance, then, but one most impressive when read by the light of what followed (and has already been published).