Holly Walker reviews the working-class white New Zealand fuck-ups, suicides and predators in Tracey Slaughter’s amazing new story collection deleted scenes for lovers.
“It is possible to say it,” says one of Tracey Slaughter’s narrators in deleted scenes for lovers, steeling herself to name the cancer that is eating her body from the inside. She can’t bring herself to say it to anyone at the party she’s hosting, but she names it to herself, learning against the bathroom wall, drunk, after an ambiguous encounter with her boss, “feeling it move in her mouth the way it’s moved in her body.” The reader knows exactly what the diagnosis is, but Slaughter never puts the word on the page.
deleted scenes for lovers is full of these hard truths – suicide, rape, infidelity, guilt – that are not confronted head-on, but come to us in images and fragments as we share the fallout with those affected. A woman processes her boyfriend’s suicide by holing herself up in the caravan where he did it. A mother encounters her abusive ex in a fish and chip shop. The children of two families simultaneously thrown together and torn apart act out their trauma on their own bodies.
Slaughter shows us a New Zealand of flapping flyscreens, busted vinyl chairs, roll-your-own ciggies, quick fucks, and simmering violence. Redemption can come in a breathtaking tyre-squealing burnout, and utter brutality starts with a triple scoop of orange chocolate chip ice-cream. It’s working-class white New Zealand, with a distinctly bogan sensibility, but there’s nothing ironic about it.
It’s not an easy place to live, or admit to living in. When the opening story (all her titles are humbly lower-case) “note left on a window” won a short story prize in 2007, the Friends of the Thames Library cancelled a public reading lest the sex and the swearing offend the mainly elderly audience. The title of the collection’s devastating centerpiece, “consent”, is a warning of sorts, but I didn’t heed it, reading late at night. A teenager working in a dairy is groomed by a man she sells an ice-cream to. After weeks of unpleasant encounters in his car, she dares to hope he might actually take her on a proper date, puts on make-up and a special dress for the occasion. Instead, she’s led up a gravel drive into a house she’ll “never really find [her] way out of.” The next morning, “there are seconds, just a few lovely, numb seconds when I first wake, where I think I am a child, that I must have dozed off and my parents scooped me up and shifted me in the night.” I wanted to reside in that fantasy with her; the truth was so unbearable. It took me a long time to get to sleep.
There is beauty and light too. “scenes of a long term nature” is a heartfelt and generous portrait of a marriage, and its images are achingly tender and familiar: “Through the net-trimmed window, they’ll watch the washing line mill the glow of evening.” Likewise the mother and daughter talking on the phone in “50 ways to meet your lover,” the gossip so good the mother doesn’t even flick through the pages of the women’s mags while she’s talking. You know these people.
Slaughter has built this collection for a decade since her first book her body rises (still with the lower case!) was published in 2005. They’re narrated by a dizzying array of protagonists of all ages and stages, whose heads Slaughter occupies and slips between with ease.
These stories are note-perfect, plentiful, and pack an emotional punch that reverberates for days. If there’s a theme, it’s trauma, and the honest but often harmful ways ordinary people respond to it. In Slaughter’s New Zealand – which is really just New Zealand – there’s no shortage of trauma.
deleted scenes for lovers (Victoria University Press, $30) by Tracey Slaughter is available at Unity Books.