Reading the Stella Prize shortlist – Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven


Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven is a collection of three stories, linked by some common themes (more on that later). I’ll be frank, I didn’t love it.

The first story, ‘Heat’, explores several generations of one family, with the characters darting in and out of the story at different stages in their lives. It’s clever, intriguing and gives the reader glimpses of the key players from different perspectives. I wanted this story to go on, delve deeper, show more of the characters as they aged.

The second story, ‘Pearl’, is set in the future and, without giving it all away, is about a disconnected scientist having lesbian sex with a mutant plant person. I think I got that right. Yeah… Not really sure what to say about this part of the book but if you have ever wanted to read about plant people and their relationships, this is the story for you.

The final story, ‘Light’, is more appropriately labelled as short stories within a short story. Some of them worked, others didn’t. The stand-out relates to the image used on the cover of the book and equally good was the story about a girl, her fish-and-chip-cook brother and a dog – both leave a strong and lasting impression.

So, themes and short story collections – which comes first, the themes or the collection? Do authors have particular themes that they want to explore in different ways, hence short stories? Or do they write a bunch of stories, then tinker around the edges of theme to create a cohesive collection?

I don’t know the answer but in the case of Heat and Light the themes (Murri* people and their place in society, and lesbianism) felt like they’d been an afterthought in some stories. More specifically, the lesbian element was overworked to the point where I expected every adult female character to be just a page away from lesbian sex. And the problem of the uniting theme then is that instead of ‘uniting’, it becomes predictable. There will be readers who will scoff at the fact that I used the word ‘predictable’ in a review of Heat and Light. Because lesbian sex with a mutant plant person. Fair enough. Maybe I just didn’t get it.

2.5/5 I wish the first story was the novel.

Will it win the Stella Prize? I don’t think so. If the judges were busting for short stories, Clarke’s Foreign Soil leaves a stronger impression.

* indigenous Australians that traditionally occupied most of modern-day Queensland.

5 responses

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