BOOK REVIEW: Australiana by Yumna Kassab

Review by Lachlan Kempson

Content warning: The collection and this review make brief mention of inappropriate sexual behaviour between an adult man and young women.

The striking thing about Australiana is how much I was made to feel, even though Kassab provides so little in each story in the way of context, background information and details. Often you are dropped right into the heart of a moment, asked to define the story’s connective tissue yourself.

Three days and the clouds had hung over the hills. They were dark enough for rain but Joel had given up reading the weather by the signs. Once upon a time, clouds that dark would have brought rain. Now they did no more than spit on the land.

Her writing is judicious; you can’t escape the sense that she is choosing what you get to read and what you don’t. This detached approach is one of the text’s greatest assets; Australiana is at its best when it holds back.

Yumna Kassab’s second published work, Australiana, is a collection of short stories depicting fragments of harsh rural life. The text’s main inspiration comes from the areas in and around Tamworth, a city in north-east New South Wales. However, Kassab refuses to be bonded to this physical space, using anonymity and mystery to craft a work that could seemingly have taken place anywhere in rural Australia. Her work is audacious, taking tales of hardship and hope, fables and ghost stories and experimenting with their presentation.

‘Any form that doesn’t involve risk-taking is dying,’ Kassab said in an interview with Liminal. This is a sentiment she carries in her writing, refusing to choose one form and employs one that she feels best suits each story. Split into five parts, Australiana’s first two sections consist of flash fiction; each story lasting no more than a couple of pages, taking a new character’s perspective with each new tale with some closely connected in narrative.

The flash fiction begins with a man whose home has been the target of frequent break-ins. The writing then shifts into the perspective of one of the teens entering the home, then the teen’s mother and so on throughout the entire town. This style of rapidly shifting perspectives is not a form I had ever encountered before, but I was entranced. What makes it stick is Kassab’s dedication to her through line:

The land is unforgiving and makes you no promises.

She maintains this focus in the next three parts, inching closer to a standard short story but still clearly experimenting with form and delivery. This harsh environment—its climate, its propensity for disaster, its capacity to give hope and snatch it away at will—is Australiana’s most important character.

The environment gives and takes, often in devastating ways. The characters confront both drought-stricken fields as well and extensive flooding, with nothing to do but pray and hope they can somehow find a way to live somewhere in-between. They pray for rain but when it comes, it brings destruction. Australiana plays with the myth of rural life and the quiet appeal of being away from ‘the big smoke’. The collection grounds these ideals in the harsh, arresting reality. Unnerving, but authentic.

The Blind Side—the middle section of the book—most resembles a typical narrative format compared to the rest of the collection, with prose that is bare, yet full of feeling.

Looking at how much he’d gone downhill in a matter of months, I couldn’t see it ending well. If people had seen him then, they would have been kinder. Or maybe not. It makes me wonder if there’s any kindness left in the world?

Our nameless narrator is recounting a story: a friend has been accused of inappropriate sexual activity with young girls and has returned to the country to seek solace. Unfortunately for the accused, the small town knows him well and what he has supposedly done.

Despite the town’s disgust and anger, Kassab’s final pages tell us that it is not the people who decide his fate—it is the land that claims him. No-one knows how, or where, but they are content in the mystery. As a reader, I found I was too. It felt fitting that the questions remained unanswered as it matched the collection’s message: in the end, the land is what gives and what takes. That is just how it is.

Australiana’s strength lies in how it tells the same story in different ways. Every perspective is unique, tailored, distinct, but filled with the same air of desperation. Their tragedy is undeniable; as every little story is unwrapped, you feel the worry that dwells in each character. Kassab’s moderation forces you to fill out their narratives yourself, to be there in the environment and see it free from the appeal of myth and allure of the country. Instead, you’re faced with uncertainty. The dread, the anxiety, the prayers—you’re made to feel them all.

But somehow, in the midst of it all, there is hope in these stories. There is hope in their reading, as though your engagement can affect the environment and change the land. That you can deliver on the rural dream of finding balance: rain will come and wash away the troubles. Rain will come because it is needed.

Rain will come because, sooner or later, that’s what it always does.

Australiana was published by Ultimo Press and has an RRP of $32.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Lachlan Kempson is an emerging editor and communications professional from the western suburbs of Melbourne. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree and Master of Publishing and Communications from the University of Melbourne. He is interested in classic literature and contemporary poetry, and one day hopes to publish his own work.

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