Children’s Hour

Field Study is the title of a short story collection by Rachel Seiffert. It is also the title of her opening story. On a river that borders Poland and East Germany, a young scientist takes samples. He suspects pollution from the factory upstream. He worries about its effects on a boy and his mother splashing downstream.

Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study. Morning, and he is parked at the side of the track, looking out over the rye he will walk through shortly to reach the river. For two days, he has been alone, gathering his mud and water samples, but not today.

Rachel Seiffert, “Field Study” in Field Study (Parthenon 2004)

When this collection was published in 2004, critics remarked upon the sentence fragments Seiffert so frequently uses. Ali Smith called them “a kind of liberation and muscularity.” The title story earned Seiffert a place in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Another story in Field Study, “The Crossing” garnered the International PEN David T.K. Wong Prize.

These were not the stories that drew me in. The ones I liked are quieter and perhaps more desperate.

Shell-shocked

Seiffert is the child of an Australian father and a German mother. Her mother vividly recalls growing up in an age that equated Germany with Nazis and thus with evil. This perhaps explains an obsession Seiffert has with the war, guilt and the sin of forgetting.

A PhD student comes to interview Fran, a mere 19 years old when he was sent to fight. Fran doesn’t tell a tale of glory or bravery. It is the war as experienced by real soldiers on real battlefields whose rifles have just jammed. Soldiers who begin to sense that their leaders may not have their best interests in mind.

These are the sorts of sentiments we have come to expect from veterans of Vietnam or Afghanistan. But this is WWII and Fran is about to disclose to a complete stranger

a family secret, discussed in loud whispers. A stigma for his daughter: Other dads had medals. Less so for her sons: the safer distance of another generation.

Rachel Seiffert, “Francis John Jones, 1924⏤”

Child’s play

Kenny has knocked up his girlfriend Maria. Neither of them has a job. They’re barely adults. The shock of it has paralyzed them both. Then Kenny tries to think ahead for the first time in his life.

The boy arrives early. He is a young man, really; older than he looks. Soft down on his upper lip, no bum on his legs. He has come for the keys, a wad of crumpled notes in his pocket. The neighbor takes him across the landing, keen to get the matter over with. The boy looks the flat over, unhurried, but he’s excited about something. It shows in his skin. The flat is a shell with curtains. In the kitchen the cupboards hang off the walls.

Rachel Seiffert, “Blue”

Alice struggles to love her daughter as naturally as she does her boy. Her girl Kim has always been distant, a foreign country to Alice, hard to reach. Now the school says Kim is playing truant. Alice is tired and defensive and a single mother. She doesn’t like the questions she gets at school.

When Alice thinks about her daughter, as she does this evening, she sees her pale eyes and paler hair, the solid flesh of the face with its closed, impassive expression. Stubby thumbs sucked white and soft and drawn into tight, damp fists.

Rachel Seiffert, “Reach”

Fee fi fo fum

A beekeeper lives alone in the hills where he can be near his beehives. Locals visit him only to trade for his honey after the snow has melted for the year. When the story opens, the thaw has set in but the nights are still frozen.

The beekeeper is startled to find a child too close to his precious beehives. The old man tries to hide but the boy follows him home. The bee man finds the child frozen and ill by the woodpile. He tries to nurse the boy back to health with honey, boiled eggs, and a roaring fire. The child brings back memories.

After the frosts had gone, his father carried a small handful of bees back to the house each morning, and his mother stood him at the door to watch his father coming. For weeks they followed the same routine: his bare arm gripped by the mother’s hands, bee pinched tight by father’s fingers and pressed against his skin. […] Until the blisters stopped coming, and there was no pain any longer, no nausea, and he pulled the full comb from the hives for the first time that autumn.

Rachel Seiffert, “The Late Spring”

There is a fairy tale quality to many of the stories in Field Study. Most involve children in some form of distress: afraid to leave the lane where they’ve lived all their short life, afraid to cross of cold violent river. To the plight of these children, Seiffert brings an all-seeing eye to examine the characters with the acuity of a scientist. An all-knowing conscious assesses their frailties and pronounces them to be good. Field Study is a lovely exercise in the art of being human.

31 Jan 2022 | Karen Kao