A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop is a quiet, contemplative collection of stories about a brutal topic – the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires.
You remember mostly, three a.m.: they found our neighbours in clusters, mostly in amalgam fillings and tyre rims trickled into what looked like snowy earth – silvers, gunmetal greys and blacks so petrol-shiny you’d think of a currawong’s wing… We were comforted, afterwards, that things ended for them together, holding each other under betadine-and-copper-coloured smoke. Under a sky that’d once promised kinder things: maybe Vegemite toast on Sunday morning, maybe a weeknight, after-work kiss.
There are dozens of stories in this collection, some just a sentence or paragraph long. The stories focus on the aftermath of the fires, and are told from various perspectives – those who lost family and homes; a nurse working in a burns unit; kids resettling in city schools while houses are rebuilt; someone thinking about the Google Earth satellite and lag before new pictures of blackened earth will replace those of her house, standing as it once was.
A handful of stories shone. In Soft News, a class is asked to imagine what they would save from a burning house. While the girls list their adidas leggings, Maybelline lipsticks and phones, the narrator names just two things – her mother and her aunt. In Just a Spark, a woman sits through the trial of the man who started the fatal blaze that took the lives of her daughter, grandson and son-in-law. At the end of each day, she parks her car at McDonald’s, where she ‘…imagines what it’d be like to feel normal again, just for a moment.’
The stand-out, Clearing, described a couple’s return to their devastated community, only to find that others are not coming back. The descriptions of their attempts to ‘get back to normal’ after such tragedy were a blend of sadness, fortitude and despair, with Theo asking, “‘How can I stop remembering the little things…?”
…she knew it was Theo’s way of dealing with the accumulating unrest – which hit him hardest in the hours just before dawn. Peanut-butter toast and black tea fixed it for a while, the late-night snack occupying time, making him forget, for a few moments, the longing for their cupboards of photos, his inherited leather motorbike jacket – once worn by his father in all kinds of weather – and the knotted-pine doors.
There’s a delicacy to Bishop’s writing – it would have been easy to focus on the horrific details of the fires and their catastrophic physical damage, but instead she writes about the social and emotional aftermath – it too is shocking, but in a quieter, cumulative way. Notably, she captures the particular struggle of many who have experienced a trauma – while they don’t want to think about it all of the time, they do think about it all of the time. But of course, trauma is a complex beast, with ‘survivor guilt’, grief, and the ways people cope giving it muscle and longevity. By exploring all of these elements through many characters, Bishop has created a rich and cohesive collection.
It’s been years, now, but Kay’s chest still whirrs along to some white-noise hum since she watched the wool-furred dog curl up from smoke inhalation – her own breath quickening as the walls lit up around her: scrambling for the car keys in the sudden, umber-edged dark.
3.5/5 Finely written.
Sometimes Small Gran’s clothes were all powdery with flour. She made us all kind of special desserts when we went to stay: lamingtons, Cadbury brownies and even the kind of cake that was in the shape of a swimming pool. Gran used blue jelly for the water.