Review by Adelle Xue
CW: Mention of suicide
Smart Ovens for Lonely People is an anthology of 20 short stories. Published in June 2020, it is Elizabeth Tan’s second book. This is a contemporary work that draws from trends, issues and themes in today’s society, including the growing global discussion of the sensory phenomenon known as ASMR, of suicide and of technologically utopian futures. However, each story – some seemingly frivolous and random – work as a commentary on a deeper level.
For instance, the book’s titular story, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, focuses on the character Shu in the aftermath of her suicide attempt. Shu is given a ‘Neko Oven’ – or ‘smart oven’ – which helps her cook and keeps her company as part of a rehabilitation program. Despite her refusal to explain the circumstances behind Shu’s acquisition of the oven, Tan homes in on humanity in this story and writes with empathy when exploring Shu’s motives and the ways that ‘that day at the overpass’ changed her life forever. Furthermore, Tan says a lot through the unsaid. For example, throughout the entire story, we do not encounter the word ‘suicide’: Tan’s characters teeter around it and readers are left to piece it together themselves. This story does not conclude with a moral or a conclusion, but is open ended and reflects how, in reality, there are no ‘real’ endings.
In many of Tan’s stories, the questions she raises are left unanswered: in Washing Day, clothes simply disappear in a strange washing machine ‘anomaly’, but like her protagonist, we are left bereft of answers, leaving us privy to the swirling turmoil of protagonist Katie and her body image. In Night of the Fish, a young protagonist critiques ‘adults’ after a playground comes to life as a fish-like creature. Here, Tan comments on wilful ignorance and replacement but leaves the matter of how, why and what to rest.
In Yes! Yes! Yes You Are! Yes You Are! a clowder of cats strikes back against a nameless evil. Over ten pages, you learn that the monster, central character O Fortuna and the other neighbourhood cats are fighting – a monster made from chemicals and hoses – is really a representation of human corruption. Further, the domestication and ownership of the cats in this story represents stolen futures and individuality. These ideas, while written in a simple narrative, are woven together expertly to form a complete and memorable picture.
Another particularly charming element of the book is Tan’s balance between humour, strangeness and empathy. Tan writes with a relaxed aplomb, which shines through each story and gives them a unique bluntness and irreverence. Despite writing from the perspective of a girl or boy, cat or fish, the voices of her characters are strong and coherent throughout their respective stories.
However, while this book adopts creative new ways of exploring Tan’s primary issues and themes, the balance between what is obvious and what isn’t is not always perfect. Sometimes, the experimental and surreal nature of her stories read as nonsensical or confusing. Whilst the purpose of each story eventually comes clear, their abstract themes sometimes ‘click’ too late. At times I felt lost, especially when stories were layered underneath stories with deeper themes lying even further beneath them.
Ultimately, Smart Ovens for Lonely People is a great read when you want to sit back and relax. It’s strange and complex and you should be ready to read about anything from holes in the sky to companies gaining sentience. Overall, I give it the green light of approval.
Smart Ovens for Lonely People is Tan’s first anthology and has since been long-listed for the Stella Prize – a literary award focused on celebrating female voices and combatting gender bias in Australian literature.
Smart Ovens for Lonely People was published by Brio Books. C format paperback RRP AU$29.99; ebook RRP AU $9.99.
Adelle Xue is currently a student at the University of Melbourne. She has published stories in Judy’s Punch and Ablaze Zine and likes to spend her days reading endlessly or with her head up in the clouds. She’s a bit of a space cadet.