She is Haunted
by Paige Clark
Allen & Unwin
Published July 2021
The cover art of Paige Clark’s debut book depicts a woman, a pot plant and a chair, positioned at angles to each other. The dark-haired woman does not face the reader but is looking through buttery yellow blinds; you can only see a faint outline of her profile. The image is misaligned and off-kilter, a foreshadowing of the contents of She is Haunted. Comprising eighteen short stories, Clark’s collection of fiction braids the real and the surreal. Perspectives are skewed playfully but an intent to explore serious matters often lies beneath the whimsy.
Loss and death are particular obsessions. The opening gambit of the collection, a standout effort called ‘Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’, exemplifies this. As with many of the stories, it’s written in the first person, in the voice of a young woman. This one happens to be pregnant and is trying to make a deal with a capricious god so she can keep her unborn child. How or why the foetus is in danger of being taken by the Almighty is not explained. Nonetheless, the narrator is earnest and hopeful of being allowed to keep what she feels is rightly hers. She’s trying to make a deal.
Here, that casual, throwaway line expectant parents use to describe their precious impending arrival– of ‘God’s little miracle’– takes on an ominous, possessive tone. Clark’s prose-style is unembellished; her sentences often short and blunt, but their economy lends power to the story: ‘God is smug. He didn’t want to check on me. He came to check on his baby.’ What’s all the more disturbing is that the god depicted here is not a vengeful brimstone-and-fire deity but a perfectly ordinary character (who, by the way, takes his tea with two sugars). God’s wilfulness and obtuseness is explained thus, ‘He doesn’t answer when you call. When he wants something, he takes it, and when you want something, he’s busy.’ In this case, he just wants what’s owing him. But the canny woman is keen to offer him alternatives. What about her mother? (‘She won a competition once for her pav’), or maybe her dog, (‘easier than the baby’) and even the cat, to keep both the dog and her mother entertained.
The title refers to the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, whose 1968 bestseller, On Death and Dying addresses the theory of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.) Clark brings us a bargaining woman right in the middle of the process.
Elsewhere, She is Haunted tracks another character who is dealing with death. In ‘Times I’ve wanted to be you’ a widow’s bereavement takes the form of dressing in her beloved’s clothes, putting her prescription in his sunglasses, even signing his name. To present as more like him she stops plucking her eyebrows, and eventually sports a unibrow. She fancies herself ‘exotic and fascinating, a grieving Frida Kahlo in sportswear.’ She subsumes her own being, literally burying herself in layers of his oversized clothing in order to transform into him. This coping mechanism will wane but it will take some time before she feels comfortable with the ‘feel of my skin again’.
Clark’s protagonists, almost all young women, choose to deflect instead of confront. When there’s pain, when they are staring at loss, they are more likely to look in another direction than to focus on the cause of their anguish. The narrator in ‘A woman in love’ is separated from her husband. Their split is not amicable – it’s not his money that she wants. She’s more fretful about being allowed equal custody of their dog. Miss Minnie. When her ex-partner continues to chafe at her perfectly reasonable request to share the elderly toothless chihuahua, the woman decides she’ll spend half of her divorce settlement money to have Minnie cloned at an American company called GeneLife! The story devolves into the absurdity of various ‘dognapping’ schemes to obtain a sample of canine tissue for cell duplication. It becomes increasingly obvious that the dog is treated as a surrogate child by both parties. The woman’s references to an abortion (because there was an extra, unwanted chromosome) makes their squabbling over a pampered substitute even more distressing. The title of the story refers to a Barbara Streisand song –apparently the singer cloned her dog too. Clark however, does not use it to signify unwavering romantic attachment to a soulmate but to the desperate desire to fight for a scrappy little mutt. As the lyrics go, ‘I am a woman in love/And I do anything/To get you into my world/And hold you within/It’s a right I defend/Over and over again…’
‘Gwendolyn Wakes’ is a story of infatuation and desire. It follows the plight of a woman working at a place called the Department of Recovery, whose job it is to reconnect clients to their ex-partners or; if their rekindling is unsalvageable, to refer the lovelorn claims to the Department of Unrequitement. Gwendolyn is good at her job, meeting all her targets and eating at her desk so she can be even more efficient at helping ‘the abandoned tormented people out there.’ Yet despite her line of work, she has never had a love, nor indeed, a lover. That is, until a new employee joins the firm.
Clark has a lot of fun with this story, which is satirical and more lighthearted than most of the others in She is Haunted. Gwendolyn becomes smitten with hyper-productive Forrest, schooled as he was, in a similar call centre background to her, ‘She looked at his taut forearms, thick from typing.’ Though the denouement is predictable – Gwendolyn ends up being forced to use her own company’s services – Clark plays around with the text, coyly avoiding the naming of body parts and the physicality of sexual congress by describing the act in such a manner: ‘Then, as they always did, they [insert bodily response to sex act here] in unison. Forrest pulling out his [insert body part here] to [insert bodily fluid here] on her back.’ However, this technique becomes repetitive after describing one too many trysts; there’s no doubting Gwendolyn’s belated sexual awakening.
Clark is of Australian, American and Chinese ancestry and lived in the US before moving from Los Angeles to Melbourne a decade ago. She is Haunted is set in both these cities as well as in more metaphysical spheres. Though this is a book of fiction, one suspects there are autobiographical aspects to many stories. The collection frequently explores transnational and Eurasian identity. Being of mixed race in a Western country such as Australia can create confusion when it comes to racialised categorisation; there’s an offhanded jeer by a Chinese boy who calls the narrator in the title story a ‘white chink’. However, here at least, she’s able to brush off his barb: ‘if made me feel exotic more than anything.’
Quite a number of the stories navigate the intersection of sex, race and culture while exploring the dynamics of female connections. In ‘Lie-in’, a ballerina who suffers from Achilles tendonitis is on a break from dancing. Her partner Paul, also a dancer (and younger, ‘with tender, springy ankles’) is away on a European tour with Akane, an attractive Japanese principal from Royal Ballet. The narrator despairs that she’s more suited to being an ensemble player, a member of the corps de ballet rather than a prima ballerina. To make things even worse, she’s trying to learn Cantonese while she recuperates but is flailing in her studies, even though ‘she looks like a native speaker’. Though there is both sexual and professional jealousy at stake– and notably between East Asian women– the narrator is still keen to impress her multilingual potential rival.
Complicated nuanced interactions between women are further explored in the tale ‘In a room of Chinese women’, in which the narrator is sizing up her husband’s ex-girlfriend. What begins as a seemingly simple story about distrust and romantic rivalry between another pair of Asian women pivots unexpectedly into a hard-won camaraderie after the pair share a meal in Chinatown, leading the narrator to conclude, ‘And I knew then that all this time, I’d been wrong. I’d thought the only thing we had in common was him.’
However, Clark can be hard on her characters’ motivations. In ‘Why my hair is long’ the root of a mother-daughter estrangement is caused by hair: too much or not enough of it. After her hair stops growing and starts falling out in clumps, a woman vindictively turns on her daughter’s own locks, giving her a brusque snip. The result is not prepossessing. ‘My new hair was short and jagged, as if I were a doll that a child had given a haircut.’ The narrator in ‘Safety Triangle’ meanwhile, ponders ‘How can I be a mother when I don’t know how to be a daughter?’
In the title story, a woman who has died from cancer and who attended her own funeral now haunts her mother to better understand her and their family history. The haunting makes the woman realise that her mother had a whole life before she was born, one that she’d never fully appreciate. Along the way she meets the ghost of astronaut Neil Armstrong as well as her Cantonese grandmother. ‘She is Haunted’ seems like a signature tale for Clark: it’s fantastical and quirky, and once again, there’s death as the focal point and a narrative that follows the maternal and matriarchal lineage.
Clark has been compared to Carmen Maria Machado, especially to the latter’s collection of stories in Her Body and her Parties (2017). Both writers centre the female perspective, share a fascination with magic realism and fantasy bleeding into quotidian realities of life as well as a preoccupation with death. That said, Machado’s writing is far more violent, sexual, and dark. What both authors do though, is use the body and its many failings as a site for inspiration. In ‘Dead Summer’ the narrator’s dying mother is described as being ‘deflated like a day-old balloon’. Deranged with grief, she later breaks up with her boyfriend because he too reminds her of a corpse. In ‘Amygdala’ a woman willingly undergoes a left frontal cortex removal so she can be more comfortable in hot temperatures, (‘Imagine that! A world without exorbitant energy bills. No sweaty, sleepless nights.’) In addition to this oblique nod to climate change, Clark also references our pandemic circumstances in ‘What we deserve’. Set in a retirement village some time in the near future, the residents of the facility must contend with its stringent hygiene and quarantine mandates to ward off infection.
As with any collection of fiction, there are some offerings that won’t resonate with all readers. Some tales are not as strong as the others, don’t feel quite finished or seem as though they are excerpts of longer pieces. But regardless of their external settings, or whether they are social realist or surreal or a combination of both, most of the tales in She is Haunted are seen through a prism of loss and absence.
It’s interesting to note that while many of the narrators are anonymous, the ones that do have names go by derivations of Elizabeth: there’s a Lizzy (in ‘Safety Triangle), Eliza (in ‘Amygdala’), Ellie in ‘Conversations with my Brother about Trees’ and another Elizabeth in ‘Cracks’. Then there’s the opening tale, the one called ‘Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’. What to make of these echoes different stories? Are the variations in names a coincidence or is Clark doing something else? Is she offering alternate realities of the same woman? I’d hazard the latter. There’s something deliciously appealing about the idea that these different iterations of Elizabeth are splinters of the one person, spread across time and place.
The prose on the whole is unspectacular; understated and at times underwhelming rather than techno-boosted by imagery or any other fancy poetics, but by unending and perverting expectations, Clark controls her narratives, ensuring that the reader’s curiosity is piqued. Most of her stories have surprising, eyebrow-raising elements. You may think you know where she is going, but to her credit, Clark often swerves into an unexpected detour. Sometimes, she just leads you into cul-de-sacs.
Her vision and writing of the female experience is curious and expansive, conveyed as it is through these short fictions that take in the messiness of life and arbitrariness of death. The connective tissue between these stories is simply and deeply the bonds of human relationships, whether tenuous or durable.
She is Haunted is not a collection with neat endings arrayed with characters whose motivations are easy to discern. It’s tempting when first looking at the cover to position it the right way up so one is looking at it in landscape format but as the book reminds us, nothing in life is that straight-forward and served on an even plane.