Book Review: Emily Paull makes an assured and emotive debut with short story collection Well-Behaved Women

An expert free-diver disappears while training with her son. An unlikely Blanche DuBois makes her theatrical debut. A group of teens head to a music festival. And two young women run away together.

These are just some of the tales that make up Well-Behaved Women, the debut short story collection from Perth writer Emily Paull. Each woman stands on the brink of self-discovery, some at a breaking point they never saw coming. The saying is, of course, that well-behaved women rarely make history, and so we move through this collection of women (and occasionally the men who encounter them) with an ongoing sense of anticipation. Just what prices will they finally exact in exchange for their quiet suffering? Or will they continue to endure, as countless women have done before them?

Each vignette Paull presents to us is emotive and engaging. Never more than a few pages long, the stories reveal exactly what we need to know, showcasing Paull’s elegant writing and eye for detail. The tales are consistently strong, and often driven by characters that leave you wanting more.

From broken marriages, bullying teachers, miscarriages, and a body in the backyard, there are varying degrees of drama at play here. But, what remains consistent throughout is Paull’s insistence on empathy. They say everyone is fighting some kind of battle, and never is that truer than between the pages of Well-Behaved Women. We might not come out the other side of this rooting for our leads, but we’ll certainly understand their struggle a little better – and likely see a parallel or two in our own.

There is something about “Crying In Public”, in particular, that stays with me. At its core sits the quietly uplifting relationship between the granddaughter, experiencing things for the first time, and the grandmother who has done it all before – lost loves and all. Patience, kindness, and that quintessentially grandparental blunt honesty are all captured here, in a story that focuses on two women who did everything right, but still fell – almost inevitably – short.

Triumphant, enraging, and occasionally all too familiar, Well-Behaved Women is an assured and thoughtful collection. Packed with vivid and engaging writing, it’s an exciting debut from the author, filled with tales that can (and should) be savoured time and time again.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Emily Paull’s Well-Behaved Women is published by Margaret River Press and will hit bookstores on December 1st.

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