Hospital (Due Preparations for the Plague, 2003, etc.), an Australian now living in South Carolina, uses both continents as settings in this progression of 14 dreamy yet tightly constructed stories about chance, attachment, and disappearance.
Spaced apart, four stories about Philippa and Brian create a spine for the book. The two, who grew up together in tropical northern Australia, share an enduring yet diaphanous friendship that spans divergent careers, thousands of miles, and long stretches of silence. In the opening story, “The Ocean of Brisbane,” Philippa witnesses Brian on a visit home as he escapes spending time with his devoted mother. In following stories, Philippa tracks the elusive Brian, who communicates often in her dreams but seldom in person. He disappears into his work, into mental illness, and finally into death in “Night Train.” By then the facts of their lives have been revealed, but more important are these characters’ recurring sensations of misplacement, loss, and fleeting connection—sensations that inform every incident in the volume. The title piece follows a young woman unable to embrace a promising present because she’s so injured by her past. In the nightmarish “For Mr Voss or Occupant,” a woman’s identity, with fatal results, becomes confused with that of the former tenant of her new house. In “Flight,” a woman who runs away from her life in Australia out of misplaced guilt over a chance occurrence that ended tragically begins a new life by trusting chance. In “South of Loss,” the only previously unpublished story here, the failed attempt of two lonely outsiders to help a battered woman’s child brings them a limited state of grace. In “Nativity,” a white professor from Boston watches his estranged, unmarried black daughter give birth in Atlanta. Optimism begins to lighten the earlier gloom. At last, in “The End-of-the-Line End-of-the-World Disco,” a woman disappears out of joy instead of fear.
Stylistically demanding, sometimes overly so, but unforgettable. This woman can write.