Book Review – The Dispossessed by Andrew Lansdown
Before I get onto my review of this volume, a word on remainder piles. I am well aware that the ‘remaindering’ process is a last-resort option for publishers and booksellers alike, and that it represents a failure to sell a particular book. I am aware, too, that the author likely receives nothing from the meagre sales of remaindered books. And yet, from the perspective of the impoverished reader, remainder piles at the front of bookstores like Dymocks and Collins are a gold mine of cheap books. For the price of perhaps $5-6 for a small paperback, $9 for trade paperback size and maybe even $12 for hardcover, readers are given the opportunity to pick up something they might never consider at full price. Given the exorbitant price of books in Australia, I have spent many hours trawling the remainder piles for a bargain or three. I often get lucky, as I did at Dymocks in Joondalup, where I picked up two Interactive Press titles, The Dispossessed and The House of Given, for less than $6 each. The remainder pile is a sort of ‘last chance saloon’ for books on their way to the executioner, and they represent an author’s final chance to get their work ‘out there’ before it is condemned to oblivion.
The Dispossessed, then. Andrew Lansdown is an author I’m not familiar with, despite the fact that, according to the author credits, he has been a very prolific writer of poetry and prose over the years. What we have here is a fairly slim volume packed with more than fifteen stories. The stories range from very short to moderately short in length, which is a good thing in my opinion. Despite the brevity of the stories, I did not enjoy reading them all, although it must be said that I ripped through the volume in around two days, so I must have derived some enjoyment from them.
Lansdown has a number of talents as a short story writer. Firstly, he writes excellent prose on the technical level, a skill that has probably been honed by his poetry writing. His prose is seldom elaborate and never flashy, giving his work an enviable clarity. In these stories, the author also demonstrates an impressive range of subject of matter and emotional content. Many are set in historic Western Australia, but others are in contemporary settings. Lansdown seems to me to be a dark, moody writer. His stories are often cutting and satirical, and are rarely uplifting. This is not a criticism, but I left this volume with my own cynicism toward human life very much intact. Books really do offer a window into the mental world of a writer, and thus I imagine Lansdown himself as an intelligent, introspective and perhaps gloomy individual.
Some of these stories were excellent. I particularly enjoyed “The Bowgada Birds”, “The Lepers”, “The Thing That Amused Them”, “The Launching”, “The Only Things”, “The Arrival”, and my personal favourite “The Story”. Given that there are 23 stories in the volume, that’s a strike rate of around 1 in 3. Some of the others I found moderately enjoyable, but I was perplexed by a number of the shorter stories, many of which seemed, in my opinion, pointless. Some of these stories are no more than brief sketches of characters and locations, rather than fully-fledged narratives, but I suppose that my disapproval reveals as much about my own reading preferences as it does about the stories themselves.
To focus on one particular story, “The Story”, I will try to explain why I liked this particular piece so much. Lansdown has a talent for bringing bygone times to life, which he does in several stories in this volume. Personally, however, I find tales of colonial life in Western Australia particularly grim and unrelenting. This story is basically a conversation between an old man and his wife, and their adult grandson. The grandson is writing a story about life during the Depression and wants to elicit some particular information from the grandfather. The grandfather, hurt by the younger man’s lack of care for his stories, keeps narrating an entirely different story to the one required. This seemed particularly touching, for some reason, and I enjoyed reading this immensely. The young man is trying to discover a number of details relating to the hitching of horses to a harvester, and I was surprised to find this particular tidbit embedded in another story in the volume, “The Arrival.” I doubt that Lansdown’s aim was particularly metafictional here, but it had an impact on me nonetheless.
In summary, I’m not sure I particularly like Lansdown’s work, but I can recognise him as an adept and multi-talented writer. I would recommend this to anyone who likes reading about the colonial history of WA, or ‘the bush’ in general.