People from South Australia carry with them a peculiar fondness for home. There’s a curiousness about it, a kind of living cult status to endemic sentimentalities. It’s literally not possible to have a conversation with a crow-eater without saying the words ‘frog cake’ and ‘Farmers Union Iced Coffee’ and ‘Popeye’. Each time I meet someone who’s crossed the border into *spit* Victoria, we find a commonality in our Adelaide experience: we went to the same pubs, we caught the same bus, we smoked cones with the same bands.
Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking Dogs (Affirm Press, 2017) is nothing like my Adelaide childhood, and yet there it is on every page.
This is a linked short story collection, in the spirit of Olive Kitteridge and A Visit from the Goon Squad—two of my favourite books. Clarkson tells the stories of Mount Barker, a town thirty minutes from Adelaide in the Mount Lofty Ranges (very good vanilla slice). There is nothing of particular note about these people, and that’s part of the joy of it, that they’re just trying to make a go of things within the constraints of their almost-regional-but-still-new-housing-estate life.
It is self-consciously South Australian. In the same way as I’m frequently compelled to shriek, ‘not descended from convicts!’, Barking Dogs seems unable to resist a shout-out. It’s like the book form of Triple M Rocks stickers. Every minute detail of an Adelaide Hills life is here: from Eagle on the Hill to a weekend on the Fleurieu Peninsula. In this way, for the right reader, it is wholly transportive.
Profits from the February and March sausage sizzles paid for two nights at Wirrina Cove Resort. (p4)
As a moody tween, I spent weekends at Wirrina while my dad ran 90s training courses (team building, Lego towers, de Bono’s six thinking hats) in their conference rooms. At the top of the hill was a mini golf course, and with my brother I would round up anyone I could find to be my friend and hang out there, and afterwards we bought vending-machine lemonade for fifty cents a can and stole pastries from the centre’s kitchen. In the afternoons, the men played golf with their suit pants on, and their wives yelled from chardonnay fugues.
Graham had a pitch ready for the Hahndorf Football Club, once the president returned his calls. (p14)
When I was eight, we drove to Hahndorf to see the changing leaves and have a carvery lunch. I chose a bag of biscuits from The German Cake Shop: choc-vanilla swirls and pert macaroons and gingerbread, half a kilo of them in a cellophane bag.. The next day we took them to a dinner party, some of mum and dad’s friends and non-friends and a balcony with a view over Gulf St Vincent. Before dessert, I fell out of a tree and broke my arm, and it wasn’t until the next morning I realised the biscuits had been left behind.
Graham remembered the time he drove them to Willunga, and they had fish’n’chips on the beach. (p26)
On Year 4 camp, we found a pair of shit-filled undies behind the toilet block. No one would admit to owning them, of course, so we went to catch insects from Willunga Beach. The air there had a particular smell, a South Australian smell – spinifex and salt and sun-baked cockles. We dug holes in the sand, pulled spindle-legged bugs from their homes and wrote “thorax” and “abdomen” in nine-year-old scrawl. That night we had sinewy beef casserole with thickly-cut carrot and clinked our plastic cups together.
They’ll have their usual – spinach and ricotta ravioli with Dolmio pasta sauce. Then Golden North ice-cream with strawberry topping. (p45)
My nanna kept boxes of Golden North Giant Twins in her chest freezer. In those days they were strawberry on one side and vanilla on the other. They seemed as long as our arms, enough ice-cream to last us a week at a time, but on hot days in her garden they were gone in seconds. On cooler days we took her biscuit tin from the shelf above the ironing board and mashed choc-covered digestives into our faces, and in the evenings she fried a whiting fillet on the electric hob and fed it to her cat.
Leah was in the Barossa Valley, and this was the poshest guesthouse she’d ever seen. (p149)
The first time our house was robbed, we were on holiday in a B&B near Nuriootpa, where my mum’s cousin lived. It was a standalone cottage amongst other standalone cottages, with a wide lawn and a low bluestone wall. That day we’d been to the Angas Park factory to buy apricot bars, scored a flagon of non-alcoholic grape juice from Penfold’s. The thieves stole our lawn mower and the VCR with my Looney Tunes still inside. We left the Barossa early. They’d got in through the cat door, which was only big enough for children.
Barking Dogs is a slice of home. It is unsentimental, but invokes great familiarity. The linked storytelling is a hugely successful way to pull this off – each family unit is explored in a way that expresses what there is to know about them, and nothing more. The stories are not in love with themselves, but with their place. And, frankly, so am I.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is an award-winning writer living in Melbourne, where she writes about brains, love, people, family, food and creativity. Her work has been published by Black Inc., The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Daily Life, the ABC and many other places. Anna’s first novel, The Paper House, is out now from Picador. Her second novel, The Gulf, will be published by Picador in mid-2017. She won the 2016 Horne Prize for her essay ‘The Suicide Gene‘, and is a widely acclaimed writer and speaker on mental health.
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