Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories: Tales of Lust & Dirt (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013) examines the post-colonial relationships ‘between the world of tin and the world of glass’, in a sequence of gripping stories from a world of places. McNamara is an Australian, currently living in Italy, having previously lived in West Africa. Her stories are compelling, rich in detail, exploring implied and overt tensions that linger in the mind.
McNamara is impressive at showing the diversity of African women, struggling to move into new relationships, replete with the impact of lust and dirt. Her fiction allows the reader to see the new disquiet, connections, exploitations and displacements, between Africa and Europe. There is a strong sense of characters taking provisional positions, travelling far from home, in the hope of a better future.
The title story, ‘Pelt’, follows a Ghanaian woman flaunting her pregnant body before her lover’s estranged wife. The reader sees her German lover, Rolfe, stumble with the return of his wife, Karina, from Namibia. He has not told her of his new love. The story is rich in attitudes, connections and commercial detail, allowing a wider vision of the characters to emerge. The Ghanaian is a confident woman, aware of her physical attributes, in relation to her lover’s wife, and is clearly determined to use her womanly guile to secure a higher status in a highly stratified society. Despite some insecurity, she triumphantly swims in the hotel’s pool towards the Europeans in an act of self-assertion and transcendence. Rolfe begs her to go home.
The story is highly successful at implying the African’s assault on European decorum and her struggle towards a wider social acceptance.
Here’s an example of the fluency and fullness of McNamara’s writing from the story, ‘Young British Man Drowns In Alpine Lake’:
He nears Corinne’s face one more time. He is gleaning it for ashen
traces. Of which there are, for one who knows her. He cannot see
how the colour of her lips has dropped a shade towards the blue
end of red, a drop in blood pressure as much as a realignment of
pluck, and that her huge white forehead, template for her sticky
righteousness, lies galvanized beneath its compelling shirr. They
say the hydraulics of the face are spellbinding. Corinne’s face is
giving him so much information I am appalled.
The steamy African backdrop impinges upon McNamara’s characters in ways that are perhaps subtler than, for example, Stefan Zweig’s African stories from colonial times. Africa is a place open to wider connections, subtler relationships, more diverse sensibilities, and the stories, some first published in Tears in the Fence, offer a range of examples. Luca, a married Italian engages his West African lover, formerly a sex worker, to look after his elderly parents. Janet is seemingly happy to be used this way and finds his parents to be lost and disintegrating in the African mud. The story effectively shows her desire to please and to continue to rise socially as much as Luca’s abandonment of his parents. McNamara cleverly uses detail to reveal character. She is thus both succinct and thought provoking.
There is much more to savour in these stories that repay rereading as quality stories always do. I thoroughly recommend this engaging and enlivening collection.
David Caddy January 7th 2014