Emma Lee reviews Jena Woodhouse’s ‘Dreams of Flight’

‘Dreams of Flight’ Jena Woodhouse
Ginninderra Press
ISBN 978 1 74027 726 6

 

 

‘Dreams of Flight’ is a collection of short stories that initially offer the main protagonist a choice to challenge the status quo or submit to it whereas later stories explore identity, particularly national, and the effects of hiding or retaining that identity in the aftermath or war or acts of destruction. In the opening story, ‘Little Black Dress’, teenager Janey is given a dress by an aunt, the family’s black sleep, and forced to hand it over to her mother, ‘In those few minutes that I had worn it, the dress had become my dream passport. I didn’t yet know where or when I’d be getting off the plane, but I did know that the little black dress would be there, in my luggage, one day.’ The mother’s actions in maintaining the status quo have the opposite of the desired effect. ‘An Uninvited Guest’ forces a husband to face reality when the house he has idealised has flooded and its occupant, whom he has been fantasizing about, leaves so he has to either reinvest in his marriage, the status quo, or follow a fantasy. There’s more fantasizing in ‘The Gamblers’ where a young woman might avoid the casino but is addicted nonetheless.

 

The mood changes in the fable-like ‘The Tale of the Girl and the Tiger’, set in Siberia in a time when humans and animals understood each other. A girl takes in a tiger cub and raises him to adulthood until her father decides it’s time for her to be married. However, the tiger threatens her suitors. She doesn’t know the tiger is actually a transformed human hunter. But she realises she has to make a decision to ditch her lifelong companion and marry or reject marriage for her lifelong companion.

 

The change of mood signals a series of stories of identity. In ‘Reading Rilke’ a Russian man asks a German woman to read three of Rilke’s poems so he can learn German pronunciation. Each poem in time stirs a memory of the Russian front and atrocities committed. After a rousing discussion of Australian and Russian cultural differences, a group of friends make their way home, one singing Tchaikovsky’s ‘None but the Lonely Heart’, the music written to accompany Lev Mei’s poem ‘The Harpist’s Song’, which was a translation from Goethe. One of the friends, a recent widower, listens, eager to get home, away from those who tolerate his company and tear him away from his wishes. Frau Krüger loses and finds her garden of forget-me-nots, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ as a well-meaning intervention goes wrong.

 

‘Dreams of Flight’ contains different stories that unite around emerging themes. The characters are well-drawn, whether it’s two teenage girls proud of giving their parents the slip to go for a drive with older boys or an elderly widow who finds herself propelled into a care home, a middle-aged man who doesn’t notice how unhappy his wife is or a divorced woman finding herself caring about the wildlife she rescues. The scenarios are identifiable, and Jena Woodhouse is at ease whether her stories are set in Europe, Australia or an unnamed island retreat. ‘Dreams of Flight’ is elegantly written with nuance plus a good ear for dialogue.