In “South, North”, the second story in Elleke Boehmer’s new collection, Lise, a young Australian woman, visits Paris after learning French. She has a backpack full of classic books, including Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, and a map borrowed from her French teacher. She wakes early in her hostel, eats an apple and goes out looking for the Goutte d’Or, the setting for Zola’s novel. On the way she eats a madeleine from a packet bought in a métro kiosk. It “tastes of almost nothing”. The added dimension of reality that Lise is looking for – “See what you can see”, her French teacher has said – plays out in the refracted light between wherever she is and an imagined other place, in a manner reminiscent of Jean Rhys’s fiction. For Lise, instead of the Caribbean and Europe, the dislocation is between an unnamed rural Australia and contemporary Paris, as well as between contemporary Paris and an invented nineteenth- century version of the city. These are some of the different places she remains focused on, even as she must deal with the unwanted attentions of two men.
Lise at one point finds herself cornered in a telephone café, where she calls her mother. In the preceding story, “The Child in the Photograph”, the reverse-charge call back home (to a landlocked country in Africa, one with “loads of diamonds”) similarly becomes a trope, as do letters and notes between the different worlds of an Oxford college and a more oxygenated life in the town outside. In “Supermarket Love”, Farhana, the young Afghan girl stacking shelves in an Australian supermarket, thinks of writing a letter to the advice column of the magazines her mother reads to ask about the colleague she likes. The use of physical telephones, call boxes and letters, rather than mobile phones or emails, brings a mildly historical flavour to the collection.
“Blue Eyes”, one of the strongest stories, engages directly with a precise historical moment. John and Mick, ex-members of the Rhodesian Special Forces, enrol at university in Cape Town soon after Zimbabwean independence, but finding accommodation is difficult. “No Rhodie ex-combatants for tenants”, says the letting agent. The men are soon offered room in the house of Patty, a young South African music student with whom John begins a relationship, though his nightly bad dreams about the war make him soak the sheets, which Patty’s black maid, Iris, silently refuses to wash. Patty likes John’s eyes: “Bluer than my dad’s. It’s the kind of blue eyes that show up blank in the old black-and-white photos. You know, photos of the colonial days, lion hunts and that”. John, meanwhile, becomes involved with Iris, too, her “big glistening eyes” melting into those of an unnamed figure he remembers – remembers killing? – in the war.
Boehmer’s characters, like most of us, are continually elsewhere, dragged back into their pasts, but not with the convenient exposition common in fictional flashbacks. Rather, they are pricked by shards of uncomfortable memory at the most innocuous moments. In “Synthetic Orange” the plastic bracelet that the protagonist’s boyfriend gives her, made from the recycled lifejackets of migrants to Spain, occasions flashbacks to the uncomfortable first swim of their holiday in a nondescript resort, then to her own troubled memories linked to drowning.
Many of the dozen stories in To the Volcano feature characters confronting fractured worlds. They are also people who behave with a quiet wilfulness, repeating behaviours even as the situations around them change. Particularly striking is “The Mood That I’m In”, in which Paul and Anne meet in the Crosskeys retirement home. She is wearing a tight red dress, he goes over to ask her to dance; soon enough, to the muted horror of his children, he has proposed and given her his dead wife’s pearl earrings. “Your father was the love of my life”, Anne later tells Paul’s daughter Beri at his funeral. But when Beri calls Anne a couple of months later, there is a new love interest, Graham. This unexpected turn can’t quite be reduced to callousness, or insincerity; instead, Anne is just doing her thing – swooning and being caught by willing men. In their best, often their most surreal moments, Elleke Boehmer’s stories are memorably lifelike.