Every Move You Make, by David Malouf

Wasting time on a planet of pleasures
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The Independent Culture

In "Towards Midnight", one of the shortest stories of Every Move You Make, an unnamed woman in an unnamed Tuscan spot makes a nightly ritual of watching a swimmer from her window. Spotting him as an Eastern European migrant, she reflects that he, too, might be a stranger "in the further sense of his having other words in his head, for owl, fence, distance". But the appearance of the stranger reminds her of an earlier gaze - her friend Chipper's as he looks at another itinerant working in a Tuscan garden. Not much else happens in the story; she waits for the nightingale's call, the stranger reappears in the water; absences, presences and passing seasons are evoked. Neither stranger nor season or gaze is the point: what remains is the dying Chipper's rueful observation that he isn't sorry "to have wasted my time on such an agreeable planet".

Peripheral observations are at the core of many of the Australian writer David Malouf's stories. In a variation on Chipper's resilience, the eccentric heroine of "Mrs Porter and the Rock" ruminates on the invincibility of that ancient breed the cockroach, and concludes that "when it came to survival, you couldn't beat people. They just went on and on."

But not that many do go on. Graves feature prominently: a father drives to his daughter's funeral; a soldier stands at his father's grave and thinks of the mother who left him in his grandparents' care; the heroine of the title story loses her lover after a near-perfect relationship, to find, at his burial, a secret and sorrow even more naked than her own, and the sense of a new beginning.

Other people's vulnerabilities elicit both compassion and a silent sense of strength. A young man, seeing an older friend bleeding, suspects he may have inflicted his own wounds; but characteristically, the emphasis shifts away to thoughts of leave-taking and homecoming, and the countries we continue to inhabit in our dreams.

Colours and landscapes are evoked in language that, at once lush and direct, is in itself a pleasure and a reminder that Malouf is also a poet of considerable talent. But descriptive passages occasionally distract from the stories' onward movement, until Malouf changes direction in one subtle move, to introduce an unexpected and poignant moment of being.

Malouf's style, at once languid and elliptical, can be maddeningly slow. At times we're thrown into a moment or mood with almost no warning; at others, by contrast, past relationships and trajectories are delineated in too much detail. "War Babies" seems to consist largely of the protagonist's scattered recollections as he prepares for Vietnam.

Death, loss, disappointment and the shadow of exile haunt these stories. What resonates, however, is a mellow maturity which emerges as the identifiable timbre of the storyteller's voice, signalling acceptance and reconciliation. In the final, beautiful story, a composer has fallen into a rut, taking everything, including his wife, for granted. But when an anticipated encounter with a prospective muse proves less than perfect, he returns to the inspiration of his wife's singing and the comfort of the marital bed: "And this, waiting below. To be resumed. To be continued."

Aamer Hussein's new collection of stories, 'Insomnia', appears from Telegram in April