Critical Review: Heat and Light
Review – Heat And Light
Author: Ellen Van Neerven
Title: Heat And Light
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 978 0 7022 53281 (pbk)
The short story is becoming difficult to define. They’re intended to be short, but how short? What if a collection of short stories combines together to make a broad picture? Does this mean they simply become chapters of a novel or novella? What if they’re unified through common themes, characters and motifs? Do they cease to provide the same digestible literature in a single sitting? In the end a short story may simply by classed as such by the amount of pages it has.
Ellen Van Neervan’s Heat and Light is a collection of short stories bound by none of these boundaries. Some stand-alone. Others interlink through common characters reappearing across timelines, either as the protagonist of their own story or the antagonist of another. There are dramatic micro-stories no longer than two pages. One science fiction story runs to almost sixty. But what they have in common is their fresh reflection on humanity.
The most common underlying theme is family. We experience a range of characters, each facing their own challenges and triumphs expressed through their relationships with family, heritage, and themselves. The anguish found within a shattered Indigenous family amplifies the theme. Most poignantly what we lose and gain. Where a character has been may correlate to who they’ve been. Where they are and where they’re headed also reflect the fluid nature of identity over time.
The majority of stories focus on the bi-racial Kresinger family. The varied settings for each character’s story take the reader from the family’s heritage land in Queensland to Sydney. As family members attempt to establish themselves in Australian society and life we are taken on a journey across time and space. However, the search for clarity in both family heritage and individuality are not always given the same magnitude of importance. On a sensory level we experience Australia and its people. The wind is a multi-faceted feature and regular motif used to create atmosphere. Physically, it can caress or batter. Emotionally, it can do the same thing. It might reflect any number of things and appears at certain moments of emotional significance. For Pearl it reflects the ephemeral nature of her character. It is a tangible manifestation of her existence. This is passed on to her son, Charlie, who feels the effect as a type of tormenting maelstrom and uncontainable. This powerful sense of nature appears within Pearl’s granddaughter. This common characteristic appears, at first, as sex addiction. But as we read we understand wind is repurposed with a silver lining for her character: the discovery of identity.
All of the stories explore displacement, both figuratively and literally. None achieve in communicating this idea as much as Water. Van Neerven utilises science fiction to express the central idea of the collection to the broader public. And it is within that skill Van Neerven’s power in storytelling lies. Communicating specific experiences in this way creates understanding for people. Many of who may have very limited exposure to such contentious Australian issues.
Review by Mark Brenchley - Freelance writer and student at Curtin University.