Melissa Manning may be based in Melbourne now, but her connection to Tasmania resounds strongly throughout the stories in her debut collection, Smokehouse. Told in the form of nine interlinked tales, the book follows the lives of a number of residents of a small Tasmanian coastal town. At the centre (and also bookending the collection) is the story of Nora, who makes the life-altering decision to leave her husband and young daughters and explore her attraction to a German man named Ollie, whose smokehouse gives the book its title.
In an approach reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge, while each story follows a different resident and moves forward through time, characters return in different roles and are seen from different perspectives in the background of subsequent stories. At times, these connections can be slow to emerge, but ultimately, the reader gets satisfaction from piecing the puzzle that is this community together.
Moments seemingly insignificant to the protagonists of the story take on deeper meaning in the context of the collection as a whole, and give the book a sense of wry dramatic irony. At the same time, a different pattern begins to emerge, as different iterations of ‘smoke’ such as cremation, house fire, smoking and cooking play out on the page. Manning’s style of writing is not to force these themes on her reader, and each piece (including “Smokehouse parts 1 and 2”) work well on their own. Together, however, the book takes on new life.
It is the dilemmas of Nora, Tom and Ollie in “Smokehouse parts 1 and 2” where Manning’s skill for characterisation is most evident. With great sympathy, Manning builds a portrait of a woman whose desires have been stifled by her marriage, and who sees the path of her life being laid out for her by someone else – right down to deciding whether or not she will go back to work.
Nora’s sense of deep frustration, mostly built in a close third person narrative style, feels like it belongs to the reader, and so her decision to leave her family and act on an attraction to Ollie comes as something of a relief. While I have to admit that I didn’t see the affair with Nora’s German neighbour coming (it is somewhat sudden), the juxtaposition of her relationship with her new partner versus that with the husband who needed a wife more than he needed Nora is stark.
Not all of the stories feel as natural as others, with “Nao” being the most obvious outlier. It chronicles the grieving process of a Japanese woman who came to Tasmania as an exchange student, and ended up being adopted by her host family after a tsunami killed her family while she was away. Unable to participate in the traditional Japanese rites for mourning, Nao finds that her grief resurfaces when, many years later, her adoptive mother passes away and she realises that she has not had proper closure.
This piece felt a little out of place, both in terms of the magnitude of the event it talked about (which could have been explored in more depth if it had been a longer story) and in terms of the characterisation of Nao. Her sense of cultural displacement did not feel fully realised to me. I also felt as if the subtlety of the story worked against it, as there were some elements of the story’s set up which I failed to grasp. By contrast, the story “Leaven”, which is the story of how Ollie came to Tasmania from Germany, deals with similar themes of bereavement and homesickness and culture, but feels more emotionally connected and authentic.
Smokehouse is an assured and accomplished collection, and a thoroughly immersive read that celebrates the landscape and the community of Tasmania. Read it if you like reading short stories like they’re novels, or if you love evocative descriptive nature writing.