Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Random House RRP: $29.99 AUD
I first came across Tegan Bennett Daylight when she was just Tegan Bennett (and I was just Lara Cain) as a uni student in the mid 90s. I read her first book Bombora amongst the flood of innovative Australian texts that burst through at that bustling time of growth for Australian literature. While many books for me then were just gobbled up and tossed aside, there are certain lines from Bombora that have stuck with me ever since. Take the final line for example, as someone falls heavily into bed…
“Sleep will gather up the day like a bright ball of mercury, rolling this way and that until all of it is caught into one.”
I’ve always loved that line!
When I read Bennett Daylight’s writing, I find myself skipping through paragraphs, grasping the facts of the story, then being stopped in my tracks by exquisite sentences that leap off the page. Her latest collection Six Bedrooms is no different. In fact, I’ve fallen in love with my Kindle all over again for its ability to bookmark sentences so that I can revisit and ponder them now that I’ve finished reading!
Six Bedrooms is a collection of short stories, many of which have been previously published in other anthologies. They’ve been reworked and interconnected here to weave a story about the highs and lows of young adulthood – the journey of finding love and finding yourself as you transition from the teens towards the rest of your life. The stories are set in Sydney and London; starting in the 1980s and moving onwards as the characters age. It’s no surprise that as a 40-something Australian who spent much of her early 20s in the UK there was a high level of personal resonance here for me! But the stories are not limited to Gen X appeal; let’s face it, every teenager of every generation ultimately experiences similar feelings of longing and loathing.
The 10 stories are linked by a central character, Tasha, although I found the ‘characters’ less important than the emotional journeys they represent. In fact, in a lot of cases, the characters are not fleshed out in great detail; we’re left to question exactly how old they might be, or how their connection to Tasha and her friends and family might play out. Many details are implied, which reminded me of the very nature of being young, where so many relationships are punctuated with misunderstandings, half-truths and false impressions.
As a teen, it’s so easy to see yourself as the centre of the universe, assuming all those who orbit you are making their life decisions just to spite you; forgetting that every adult, and every other teen, is bringing their own baggage to your interactions. Unlike life, a short story collection with narrative flexibility means we get to revisit some of the same scenarios from the perspective of different participants in the action. Other stories, though, remain enigmatic and inconclusive – perhaps opening the door to a follow-on collection? Or perhaps, again, functioning in the way our real life stories do, where in some cases we’ll simply never understand other people’s motives or find out what-happened-next.
They Fuck You Up is a good example of this. This is the story of Darcy, a boy from a fractured family, who pins his escape hopes on a future with Noor, a girl he’s been seeing for 10 weeks and loves devotedly, obsessively. But Noor hails from a strict family, with a ‘classic Middle Eastern dad’ who restricts her from going out at night or hanging around on Facebook like her friends. Ultimately Darcy’s dreams of quitting school and running away with Noor are scuppered by her father. But we’re left to question whether Noor was actually more afraid of her father, or Darcy himself.
Another highlight is J’Aime Rose, which explores a teen girl’s longing to be loved and accepted. She falls into the all-too-common trap of mistaking sex for validation, hoping the right kind of attention from a boy will somehow help her transcend her perceived plainness.
‘In this part of my life I was watching, and waiting. I was waiting to be transformed. I would be nobody until someone chose me.’
Of course, when that attention finally comes her way, the result is humiliating and damaging to one of her more valuable friendships. Getting the politics of friendship and infatuation right is surely one of the biggest challenges of our early lives.
There are stories here about being a parent, being a child, being a sister, being a friend and being a lover. The most moving are those that touch on the transition between these roles, like the final story where we meet Tasha coming to terms with the passing of time; confronting the death of her mother, as well as her own role as a parent.
About her mother, who she visits in hospital …“My mother was dying and life was flowing past us, pushing past us, racing on. It was as though I’d never properly understood the inexorable turn of the earth. My mother moving away from me felt like continents pulling apart, two landmasses separating. It had been happening all my life but only now could I see it.”
About her son, as he asks her silly, curious questions while they walk together … “I will miss this exchange when he is older. I’ve been a mother long enough to know this. But it doesn’t stop me from letting streams of gold run through my fingers, day upon day. I’m like a princess, so used to luxury that I simply let it fall from me as I pass through the rooms of my palace.”
I read so much of this collection with my heart in my throat. The sense of bewilderment amongst the younger characters is palpable and transported me back to the cringe worthy moments of my own teens, complete with a Cure soundtrack and bad fashion flashbacks. On the other hand, the atmosphere of melancholy reflection and opportunities lost that comes with the wisdom of age is a mixed blessing that inevitably befalls us all.
Read more about the author, along with a free sample story at the Random House website.