The latest from Australia's acclaimed Malouf (The Conversations at Curlow Creek, 1997, etc.), a wide-ranging collection of nine stories, does nothing to diminish his substantial reputation as a probing writer who time and again finds the mark of truth in a welter of confusion as individuals come face-to-face with the unexpected and unknown.
The title story reflects the dreamlike quality found throughout, but gives it an almost Kafkaesque twist: after decades of living in London, a successful novelist is brought home to Brisbane by the death of his mother, spends an evening with a cousin he'd once been close to, then finds himself walking to his hotel through mean, empty streets in the middle of the night—and is set upon by a stranger who accuses the writer of sleeping with his girlfriend, then takes out a knife and mutilates himself. This sobering moment proves cathartic, but other stories offer less fruitful encounters: in “Lone Pine,” a vacation to the hinterland in an RV sets up the cold-blooded execution of a childless couple; in “Blacksoil Country,” a boy narrates his feckless father's failure to abide by the aboriginal rules of the Outback, a failure that results in his dad shooting down the bearer of a peace offering, and in the boy's own murder as revenge. Not all of these tales are as bleak, however: another boy, in “At Schindler's,” is at first upset when his mother takes up with a G.I. in WWII because it means she no longer believes his father, missing in action, is alive—but the boy will come to accept that as well. And an annual family gathering in `Great Day` to celebrate the patriarch's birthday, for all its upper-crust trappings and seaside splendor, offers simple but profound discoveries that transcend class, gender, and the generations.
With writing as revelatory as it is eerily precise, that disturbs as much as it satisfies: one and all these masterful stories are such stuff as dreams are made of.