The Weight of a Human Heart, by Ryan O’Neill

The first collection of stories by the Australian writer was given to me by Hayley, who rightly guessed that once I read the first page I’d be hooked. That first piece, “Collected Stories”, remains my favorite, and not just because the protagonist is named Barbara. The mother-daughter relationship struck me as being as true as can be and the writing brilliant. Here is the first paragraph:

My mother, Margaret Hately, was a short-story writer. In the few photographs I have of her she is carrying a book, holding it against her chest as if she were suckling it. There are no photographs of my father. My mother destroyed them when he left her, a month before I was born. I only know him from the parts of him she put in her stories—a limp, a way of reading the newspaper at arm’s length. Whilst my mother wrote, my father was made of words.

The characterisation here bowled me over. The telling details, that wonderful image of suckling a book, and the stunning final sentence left me feeling I knew all three of these people intimately.

The story has an unusual format: it is organised in five parts, each one titled by and referring to one of Margaret’s published books. As we move through her career, we see the relationship with Barbara developing in sometimes surprising ways, always with eminently quotable sentences.

Nearly all of the stories in this collection have some kind of experimental format: one is a series of figures; another a list of rules for writing a short story; yet another an examination paper. Some, such as the one told by labeling the components of a short story, probably appeal most to other writers. However, they are clever and surprisingly effective.

For example, one story, “Tyypographyy”, uses different fonts and a sticky key to tell Amy’s first-person story of grieving for her recently deceased mother, trying to relate to her father who is stuck in his own mourning, and juggling well-meant attempts at sympathy from teachers, including a maths teacher who speaks to the class only in lists of numbers.

Another, one of my favorites, called “The Footnote” tells the story of Thomas Hardie, an aspiring author, who at the age of seven demands to be “called by his middle name, Edward, so there would be no confusion when his first book was published.” We discover from the footnotes that this account is actually being written by his son. Although the footnotes are fairly cryptic at first, the emotion behind them is strongly conveyed by their juxtaposition with the text and by the significant selection of memories incorporated. The footnotes gradually grow longer and we find out why the son’s memories are expressed there. I found the ending enormously satisfying.

As my friend mentioned, the repetition of certain themes and subjects gets a little old. Not another story featuring the Rwandan genocide! I found myself thinking. Not Newcastle again! Perhaps if I hadn’t torn through the book so fast, let days pass between each story, the repetition wouldn’t have bothered me so much.

I also found the cuteness of the experimental formats sometimes overwhelmed the genuine human story within. There are some more traditional stories, including another of my favorites, “The Saved”, about an Australian woman who is in Rwanda teaching English. Mrs. Watt’s efforts to teach the village children and to help another teacher bring her into conflict with the Bishop, the head of the school who makes Mr. Brocklehurst look like a saint.

I highly recommend this collection and am eager to see what else O’Neill has written.

Have you read fiction using experimental formats? What did you think of it? Another example is Jennifer Egan’s popular book, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

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