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Review: Julie Chevalier's short story collection 'Permission to Lie'

Spineless Wonders, 2011

It’s been a breakthrough 12 months for Julie Chevalier. In December last year she won the Alec Bolton Prize for her unpublished poetry manuscript, Darger: his girls, and at the same time she achieved the rare feat of appearing in Black Inc.’s The Best Australian Stories and The Best Australian Poems for 2011. In February she published her first book of poetry, Linen Tough As History (Puncher & Wattmann), and more recently she edited a collection of prose poems and microfiction, Small Wonder, launched by Spineless Wonders in August.

And back in April last year, before this flurry of launches and laurels, came her collection of short stories, Permission To Lie. Although it was Chevalier’s first book, she already had an impressive list of publishing credits: of the 20 stories included, some had appeared in the UTS Anthology, Southerly, Antipodes and Island, and others had been read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and on ABC Radio. In a way, the book was a logical next step, prompted by what was becoming a burgeoning body of work.

As a result, Permission To Lie is more like the story so far, rather than a story in itself. Its broad sweep includes ordinary life in modern-day Sydney, not-so-ordinary life in NSW jails and correctional facilities, and some pieces set on the east coast of America in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The book is roughly organised into these three worlds, separated by simple but thoughtful illustrations. And although there is no obvious “me” character, the stories do reflect the writer’s own experiences, growing up in the US, for example, and working in jails.

This certainly contributes to the standout feature of the book: the authenticity of the diverse settings. In the prison stories, the scenes are particularly well drawn, raw and gritty without ever trying too hard to shock, or descending into the lurid. When Chevalier switches to the second person and puts “you” in the Long Bay Jail visiting room in 'This awful brew', it’s easy to slip into the character’s shoes:

The whole room throbs. You turn in time to see Max’s hand move under his lady’s skirt. Probably she isn’t wearing knickers. Gav says she tapes a sawn-off fit loaded with heroin to her thigh, a take-away for Max. Are drugs more a commodity than sex? You can never figure it out. That’s Berko coughing, the one whose missus claims she got pregnant in this room. You cross your legs and check out what a toddler conceived during a jail visit looks like. Brown eyes, sticking-out ears, and sticking-up brown hair – just like Berko. The air, thick with volatilised juices, wraps around you like a body suit of sperm, sweat and sour breast milk. Thank goodness for cotton knickers.

Even in the more quotidian settings (where, paradoxically, the more incredible stories take place), Chevalier displays a poet’s knack of picking out the detail that makes us grin in recognition and put our trust in the narrator. In 'Wearing clothes is not compulsory', single Stephanie joins a bushwalking group and meets Len, engaging with him in that halting dance of hope and distrust that probably occurs everywhere in the world, but just feels so quintessentially Sydney.

He phoned to invite me to join a walk he was leading. Royal National Park, Maximum of twelve, Grade: EASY, Book early, the newsletter had said. But he was the only one to show up at the meeting place, a dock. Why hadn’t anyone else signed up? He worked with families who kept their kids home from school, something about attendance. Must have had police clearance to work with kids.

Compact phrasing, pinpoint imagery and a wicked sense of humour are hallmarks of Chevalier’s writing. The story quoted above contains a wish-I’d-written-that description of a nudist barbecue: “They were as brown as the bangers and HP sauce. We were as white as the sliced bread.” In 'Cylinder for a tree trunk', we can clearly picture the features of the weary, bitter Mrs Mueller without seeing her face: “Her brown hair was yanked back with the kind of elastic band that bound the celery at the fruit market.” And Chevalier understands the power of those most compact of descriptors: characters’ names. 'The library is a social institution' stars Lavinia N Pinsky, a combination of flounce and anal retentiveness – with a good measure of tsk tsk.

While the prose evinces economy and discipline, there’s also a sense of playfulness in this collection. Chevalier demonstrates a love for experimenting, inserting other forms such as irregular diary entries in 'Skim flat white', kitsch recipes in 'Courting the American tragedy', and a class assignment film script in 'Kynon has his photo taken'. And she moves freely between a concise but fairly conventional narrative style to denser passages, such as the hilarious, minimally punctuated 'Cherry pie':

I was disinfecting his phone so a course I answer when the lady whispers I write Francesca wants you to pick up the cherry pie this weekend not next weekend and she giggles like her with the earrings who used to work upstairs and he swears and hopes I’m taking my holidays soon not waiting for Christmas and I say how you can loan someone a cherry pie and pick it up later he say don’t squirt that near the aquarium you’ll poison my goldfish and confidential papers including notes go through the shredder not the recycling loose lips sink ships and Graeme say get out of here right now Maria I mean it this is urgent for the Head of the Board and he marches off and this time the lady says she’d be waiting for him to bring a banana next weekend not this weekend and that’s too rude to write down so I don’t he’s up to no good with his flippin banana.

As well as tinkering with form, Chevalier weaves delicate connections between the stories. Cameo actors return to take centre stage, and vice versa. Clifford, the cheating husband in the opening piece, becomes the protagonist of the next, allowing us to see beyond the high-flying, womanising antagonist and discover a very ordinary bloke, struggling with his own disillusionment. It’s a courageous approach, and one that helps create a sense of cohesion, fleshes out the characters and – at its best – upsets our expectations.

And when this exploration of characters and relationships is done particularly well, the book delivers a potent emotional charge. This is the case in the stark portrayal of release from prison in Meant, and in the affecting narrative of a widow caring for her ageing father-in-law in 'Seeing the jane':

‘Who’s your closest relative?’ I asked when we were making the list of phone numbers.
‘You are. You’re my nest of kin.’
I heard nest although it’s unlikely he said it. You are my nest. The sound of shelter, like a hymn. We are a nest. Together we nest, the two of us, unconnected by blood, sex or gender. Our family has atrophied to the point where we need a lending library for more than books. I’d like to borrow one elderly veteran and one child for the long weekend please.

Once again, it’s easier to believe in these relationships, these people, because of the authenticity of the worlds through which they move. Permission To Lie is an apt title for this book, and not just because it hints at the deceit that runs through the stories and that, along with loneliness, emerges as the main theme. The title also fits because writing is one of the few professions where people have not only permission to lie, but almost an obligation to do so, especially in the name of verisimilitude – whatever is required to make the reader accompany the narrator into their fabricated world and believe. And that’s what Chevalier achieves in this wide-ranging and satisfying collection.