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July 22, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Tough by Amy Head

One of the best things about New Zealand literature is the chance it gives us to directly encounter ourselves—our communities, our history—on the page. Victoria University Press’ latest offering, Tough, by Amy Head, is a collection of short stories set on the West Coast which does just that.

The stories in Tough alternate between the present-day West Coast, a small community, although not as isolated or desolate as it might appear to be, and the West Coast of the early settlers and the gold rush, a wild coast where danger arises from the people as much as the land. This is an interesting element which highlights the features typifying both sets of stories. The contemporary stories, when told next to the Wild-West-esque settler ones, seem all the more relevant; modern stories for a modern sensibility, expressing a starkness which is echoed by their environment. The earlier stories, through this juxtaposition, become then more historical, and more like stories. This division can make reading Tough a strange experience, as we move suddenly from one world to another.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does present an interesting question: what is the purpose of telling the stories of the West Coast from these two time periods? There are some constants. The river seems to be always flooding, and in both time periods characters reappear, which lends the collection as a whole a kind of continuity. Yet we are still faced with two mostly disparate halves, interwoven into a whole which resists being read as such.

There is, however, a clear similarity in tone: a focus on simple, evocative images, a roughness in character and subject matter, a colloquial vernacular. So, are these two worlds so different? Perhaps not; the contemporary stories are largely concerned with loss in a romantic or temporal sense (sometimes both) where the historical ones are preoccupied by death. There is a common thread here—hard lives being eked out in an isolated, weather-worn place—and, because the lives of the characters largely improve with time, a sense of hope.

These stories are often strangely anticlimactic, ending abruptly. Although this can be disconcerting, it works in Head’s favour, contributing to the muted power of her writing. So much is subdued that it can seem like there is nothing going on. But there is. The character motivations and conflict—the backbone of any short story—are constantly bubbling away beneath the surface, going largely unmentioned, until they surface at vital points, like the bodies floating down the river in ‘Flood’ and ‘A Strange Story’. If there is a governing consciousness for these stories it is minimalism; not a stylish, pretentious minimalism, but a sort of solid brusqueness leading into moments of solemn beauty, perfectly echoing the character of the West Coast.

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