Book Review: Laura Elvery’s second collection is anything but ordinary

The premise for Brisbane writer, Laura Elvery’s second collection of short fiction, Ordinary Matter, is enticing. Inspired by the twenty times a woman has won a Nobel Prize for scientific research, it is a collection about womanhood, feminism and motherhood. But, also about big issues which are very much prescient today, such as climate change and politics.

From the first story, “You Run Towards Love”, in which a woman and ‘a man who used to be her lover’ meet on a train and travel to a climate protest in Paris, this collection proves itself to be both timeless and grounded in the now. The woman, Faye, taps her former lover on the shoulder and asks him ‘Do you think it’s fair that the Minister is on holidays in the snow while the country burns?’ This reference to Prime Minister Morrison’s choice to take a family holiday during the devastating bushfires at the beginning of 2020 starts the collection off on a strong statement. Though Elvery is looking at 120 years of history, she is also looking at our present moment, and to our future.

Some of the stories in this collection are more directly inspired by the prize winning scientists than others. For example, there’s “Grand Canyon”, in which Marie Curie and her daughters feature as characters observed by a slightly unhinged and obsessive narrator; “Night Blindness”, told from the point of view of 1947 winner, Gerty Theresa Cori as she travels by sea to her new home; and “Stockholm”, in which Rosalyn Yalow meets a young fan at an hotel.

The more historical approach – uncommon in the short story genre generally – harks back to the opening story from Elvery’s debut collection, which is about the Radium Girls, and established Elvery as an agile and adaptive writer, comfortable in any iteration of the form. But far from being purely an historical collection, Ordinary Matter also turns its attention to the contemporary world, and in some cases, to the future.

In “Something Close to Gold”, a couple who have been struggling to conceive come up against the previously unheard of government Department of Reunification and Wilderness Finds, and the more conceivable sounding Department of Maritime Affairs in the matter of whether or not they can keep a baby found on the beach. The mixture of the magical, the slightly absurd and the very real emotion of this piece make it a stand out in the collection.

What is clear from reading Ordinary Matter is that Laura Elvery is a writer whose talents are anything but ordinary. Her dexterity with forms, characters, voices and styles make this collection a joy to read, while also being incredibly thought provoking. If only the Nobel had been awarded to women more than twenty times in the last century and a bit, we might have been treated to more fiction. But then again, drawing attention to the possible injustice of this scale was, I believe, part of the motivation for writing the book.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Laura Elvery’s Ordinary Matter is available now through University of Queensland Press.

Order your copy from Booktopia HERE.

Emily Paull

Emily Paull is a former bookseller and a future librarian. Her debut book, Well-Behaved Women, was released by Margaret River Press in 2019.

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