Review: The High Places by Fiona McFarlane - Stories of what life looks like from above

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The High Places by Fiona McFarlane
Released: 1st February 2016
Published by: Penguin Australia
Genre: Short stories
Source: Library
Pages: 288
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
The dazzling stories in this collection find those moments when people confront the strangeness and mystery of their lives.

The revelations of intimidating old friends on holiday. An accident on a dark country road. A marine biologist in conversation with the ghost of Charles Darwin. The sudden arrival of American parachutists in a Queensland country town. A lottery win. A farmer troubled by miracles in the middle of a drought . . . The people in The High Places are jolted into seeing themselves from a fresh and often disconcerting perspective.

Ranging around the world from a remote Pacific island to outback Australia to the tourist haunts of Greece, these stories are written with extraordinary invention, great emotional insight and wry humour. Each one of them is as rich and rewarding as literature can be.
This review also appears in Vertigo 2018: Genesis

Each of the thirteen stories in The High Places offer a glimpse into those who find themselves slightly off-kilter, leaning over the precipice of a new beginning. Spanning multiple geographical landscapes and time periods, McFarlane’s sharp observations bring to light the nuanced ticks and mannerisms which make individuals their own unique selves. In a style which focuses on detail threaded through the fabric of the characters’ hopes and dreams, you can’t help feeling that you are part of these people’s lives, if only for a few pages.

He felt grateful when he looked at her. He felt an expansion in his brain that he enjoyed – a feeling that finally he had found his life, or was finding it, was on the verge on finding it, although he was still a graduate student and suspected he always would be. He said to himself, This is my youth, at this moment, right now…
          - Exotic Animal Medicine

McFarlane’s clever storylines are vividly imagined and compelling, reeling you in before a disquieting truth is revealed. In 'Exotic Animal Medicine', a young couple who have just married in secret are soon faced with the startling consequences of what began as an innocent drive through a small English village. Set in Sydney, 'Art Appreciation' depicts a relationship in its fragile early stages, questioning how sincerely we accept the interests of our lovers once our lives become entwined with theirs. What makes this collection so memorable is that each protagonist is written with an acute self-awareness and honest faults. As readers, we are able to look on from above while taking the moral high ground, until forced to realise that we are just as fallible as any of these characters. I love how thought-provoking every scenario was, communicating the subtle caution that even as we endeavour to construct the perfect house of cards, it only takes the smallest disruption for domestic bliss to fall from its eagle height.

Although McFarlane writes in lush, intelligent prose, she sensitively captures the innate self-consciousness we possess around people who are inexplicably self-assured. In the story Rose Bay, Rose considers that her sister would think it ‘immodest of her to live in a place that shared her name’, while recognising that ‘her instinct to please people, without being over-eager, came from a dislike of disagreement’. A character who similarly navigates conflict in quiet acquiescence appears in one of my personal favourites, 'Mycenae'; a wry tale of two couples on holiday among the whitewashed streets and ancient ruins in Greece. In both of these examples, not only is there a vivid sense of place, but a fresh perspective provided for the women who unknowingly stand at a tipping point in their lives. For Rose, it comes in the form of anchoring her identity outside familial ties, finally content with the life she had made for herself. On the journey to Mycenae, Janet realises that the Andersons are not necessarily experiencing the apotheosis of marital paradise, even if the mirage they so carefully projected said otherwise. The precise effects of these revelations are not explicitly explored, and what some may find frustrating is that each story lacks a proper sense of an ending. However, while I was often left on the verge of a plot point left unresolved, the first line of the next story always hooked me right back in.


Overall, McFarlane has showcased her versatility as a writer without losing sight of creating characters whose attributes are reflected in ourselves. What I took from The High Places is that our lives are full of defining moments, with countless opportunities to begin anew - if only one would look up to see them. Where this book truly shines is in its message about assessing where we stand and what we want out of life. We can crane our necks higher and strive for more, but it’s only while remaining grounded in reality that we can finally say with confidence: “I know who I am.”

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