I’m in a brilliant indie bookshop in St. Kilda’s, Melbourne casting about for something to read. More specifically, I’m looking for short fiction to balance out my last long read. The author needs to be an Australian and I’d prefer a female writer.

So I study the handwritten staff recommendations. One of them is particularly enthusiastic about Amanda O’Callaghan, an author whose name I’ve never heard. I pick up her debut short story collection This Taste of Silence and scan the opening lines.

Roger, Maureen decided, is the kind of man who would appreciate an old-fashioned pudding.

Amanda O’Callaghan, “A Widow’s Snow” in This Taste for Silence (University of Queensland Press 2019)

Then I see the back flap. It tells me that O’Callaghan is a former advertising executive. Writing stories is her second act just as mine is. She’s my kind of writer so I take her book home.

At the Zoo

This Taste of Silence houses a surprisingly diverse zoo of stories. O’Callaghan deploys a range of narrators and distance. The lengths of the stories vary from 20+  pages to barely one page. Some of these short shorts remind me of how Lydia Davis can cast the line of a story well past the horizon of the page.

A week after she married him, she cut her hair. The scissors made a hungry sound working their way through the curls.
‘You cut your hair, Eve,’ he said, when he came home. Nothing more.
She thought he might have said, ‘You cut off your beautiful hair,’ but his mouth could not make the shape of beautiful, even then.

“Tying the Boats”

Most of the stories collected in This Taste for Silence have been earlier published in literary journals and anthologies from around the globe. It’s an eclectic bunch of publishing credits that includes crime and flash fiction. The former attests to O’Callaghan’s love of the macabre, the most delicately slight frisson of fear that haunts stories like “An Uncommon Occurrence” or “Legacy”. You know something wicked has happened or is about to happen, but what?

When the news came to the house, it slipped in quietly, past the smiling and the bottles and the happy chink of glasses, deaf to the music pushing at the walls.

“The News”

To my mind, it’s flash fiction where O’Callaghan is at her best. She’s garnered the most awards for her work under a thousand words. Sometimes the impetus for a story lies in a glance or a gesture. O’Callaghan calls herself a pickpocket, always collecting little bits and pieces. As for the challenges of writing flash fiction, she knows the drill.

They are difficult to get right as every word must do a lot of heavy lifting. Writing a good piece of flash fiction requires quite a bit of discipline, and I think it helps my writing overall.

“Q&A: Amanda O’Callaghan, Author of ‘This Taste for Silence’” in The Nerd Daily, 30 June 2019

Around the World

The stories in O’Callaghan’s collection are set in Australia, England and Ireland, her 3 countries of residence. Since I’m in her native Australia as I read her work, I’m particularly alert to those images of home that only an Australian would know. Say, the heat of a strong afternoon sun sliding a burning finger along the parting of my hair.

Summer’s heat begins to wane on Bruny Island, Tasmania where I finish reading This Taste for Silence. The islanders here use the term wicked to express surprise or admiration. I can think of no better way to describe those O’Callaghan stories that defy place and time. Here’s the opening of my favorite flash fiction piece.

I remember you in lipstick colours. Those cheap, brittle tubes heaped in a basket at the back of the chemist, down where they take in the prescriptions. The way your tired eyes might have fallen on them, your fingers scrabbling through the neon bursts of colour. Shocking pink, fiery tangerine, a heartbreaking red.

“Speak the Words”

Wicked, Amanda O’Callaghan.

9 Mar 2020 | Karen Kao