Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
“She reads each word carefully and I follow along in my head. ‘“A particularly fine specimen,”’ she says, her finger drawing an imaginary line under the small print. It is so small that I have to lean in to make out the words. ‘What a strange way to describe her. Like she should be dropped into a jar. Dropped into a jar and kept on a shelf, high up so no-one can reach her.’”
Joanna Atherfold Finn’s first book, ‘Watermark’, is a collection of eleven short stories set in exquisitely depicted coastal areas of Australia. Each piece stands strongly on its own. But as the collection unwinds, familiar names occasionally re-emerge, sometimes years later, throughout the subsequent narratives. The subtle linking of the stories is a satisfying device, with each story building on an often heartbreaking, but sometimes humorous world of characters, locations and observations. It is clear that as a writer, Atherfold Finn is an acute observer, of life, of people and of detail.
‘Lone Shark’ depicts the confronting story of ten-year-old Austin, a boy who struggles with dyslexia. The story, which begins light-heartedly enough, grows increasingly dark and alarming. It becomes apparent that Austin’s dyslexia is not the most troubling aspect of the little boy’s sad and disturbed existence. The story is, however, beautifully told by the author through the voice of a ten-year-old; it is a very effective, yet different voice in contrast to the tone of the strong opening story of ‘Boondi Wars’.
Many of the book’s stories deal with very serious issues, such as emotional and sexual abuse, depression and alcoholism. Yet the stories manage to effortlessly incorporate light-hearted moments of humour and insight, as well as many effectively descriptive depictions of Australian coastal life. In ‘The Neighbours’, Atherfold Finn peppers the story’s sad undertones with warm nostalgia and funny character anecdotes, my favourite of which was the mention of “Fat Cat” from 1980s children’s television fame. It was a laugh-out-loud moment for me when a character who had played the role of Fat Cat, described it as an intense and bitterexperience.
In contrast with ‘Lone Shark’, the story of ‘Jesus Sandals and Anchovette’ is an unusual narrative written in the “second person”. Although the stories are linked, this one is lighter and more innocent, and I particularly enjoyed Atherfold Finn’s spot-on description of a classroom smelling ‘like old honey sandwiches and mandarin peel’. I have indeed been in the annexe of that ancient demountable.
If you’ve ever lived out in the Aussie suburbs or in a middle-class housing development, ‘Oasis Estate’ succinctly and brilliantly spells out your gated community Colorbond nightmare. So true is the experience of the characters in ‘Oasis Estate’ and indeed throughout the whole book, it became apparent to me that Atherfold Finn has not only observed, but she has lived, really lived. She might have even really lived the insanity of an integrated bathroom where ‘steam wafts into the bedroom making everything dank’. I know, right?
I did not expect the final story of ‘Watermark’ to link back to the first story ‘Boondi Wars’ so fittingly and succinctly. ‘An Almost Happy Ending’ sheds unexpected clarity and light on the emotional and sandy water-themed introduction and beachy overtones of the entire book. Joanna Atherfold Finn cleverly concludes ‘An Almost Happy Ending’ a few paragraphs before a less bold and confident writer would end it, leaving me—the reader—looking forward to anything Joanna Atherfold Finn comes up with next.