Singing my sister down and other stories by Margo Lanagan – book review

singing-my-sister-down-and-other-stories

I had goosebumps when I read Margo Lanagan’s short story, ‘Singing my sister down’. It’s a combination of her evocative language, believable worlds and her unique characters and the situations they find themselves in.

This story is also the title of her collection of fantasy short stories, some of them written almost twenty years ago. If you’re looking for a collection of short stories that will take your breath away, this is it. It’s been marketed for young adults but also fits into the adult literary fiction category.

‘Sweet Pippit’ is a story about a group of elephants. But Lanagan doesn’t ever mention the word elephant. Yet you understand by her choice of words that Gooroloom and Booroondoon are elephants. And if elephants could talk, this is what they would sound like.

But our bearing is the sort that soothes others; we move with inevitability, as the stars do, as the moon swells and shrinks upon the sky.

Let’s unpack that sentence for a minute as if we were literature students.

  • our bearing – instead of saying ‘the way we hold ourselves’ which is a little clunky – we have our bearing which implies regency
  • soothes others – elephants, by their very presence, calm others – both humans and animals
  • move with inevitability – the word inevitability has a sense of certainty and destiny about it
  • as the stars do – she has linked heavy, earth-grounded elephants to the stars –  tiny pricks of light
  • the moon swells and shrinks upon the sky – a lovely way of describing the moon waxing and waning.

And all of that in one sentence!

Here’s another beautiful line –

And our spirits, which had been poised to sink with Gooroloom’s worry, lifted as if Booroondoon’s words were buoyant water, as if her song were breeze and we were wafted feathers.

Again, the pairing of unlikely elements – elephants and wafted feathers – creates lyrical, contrasting images in our minds.

In her interview with Charlotte Wood, in the book The writer’s room, Lanagan talked to her about the craft of writing.

When you’re writing the sentences you’re also thinking about the paragraph, and beyond that to the entire scene, or the entire story. And then you feel the rhythm faltering – so you put square brackets around the blundery bit and you keep going so you don’t lose that sense of the rhythm. Then you come back and find the right word or phrase to fill the gap. Sometimes you’ve got the sense of it but you don’t have the perfect word. You know there is one – it’s on the tip of your tongue, but it’s not there. But you know it means roughly this, so you put down that meaning in square brackets and go on, and you come back and find your way to the perfect word when you’re fresher.

Even if you’re not usually a short story reader, read Margo Lanagan’s book and become one!

 

4 comments

  1. One of your best Karen, a lovely tribute to someone with a real gift, a wordsmith. I particularly liked the concept of the square brackets as a temporary remedy for writer’s block even on a small scale.

    1. Thanks, David! I think it’s important to keep going when writing so you don’t lose the flow – I often highlight the bits that aren’t working or put them in double angle brackets.

  2. I have not heard of this author. Short stories are wonderful when reading time is limited. I embraced them when the kids were little and parenting all consuming. Not much of a fantasy reader o how do you think I’d go?

    1. Maybe borrow it from the library so there’s less of a financial commitment, Carolyn? Or flick through one story in the bookshop. Good to read outside your comfort zone!

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