Thank you Caroline for that introduction, thank you Margaret River Press and Bindy for allowing me to speak on behalf of your book, and thank you all for being here to celebrate with Bindy on the publication of this wonderful book called Fabulous Lives.
I’m starting literally at the beginning. First lines. One of the most important things to do well, one of the most difficult things to do well. How about this for a first line of the first story, called ‘The Shape of Things’?
‘When Leonie found the young man lying outside her ground floor apartment he was naked and perfect.’
Or this, from the very next story, called ‘Dying’:
‘Someone gave her a copy of the book Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor and she only had to read the blurb at the back to know it wasn’t for her.’
A later story starts like this: ‘Everything about my mother’s side of the family is halfarsed.’
You just know that whatever is going to follow these lines in the next few pages will have you absolutely spellbound.
In Fabulous Lives, Bindy takes us from suburban Perth to New York, from the rooftops of Paris to the lava fields of Hawaii, by way of West Africa. However, we follow the people living these fabulous lives into worlds that are way stranger than we could ever imagine—but that’s OKAY, because Bindy Pritchard imagines them for us. And through her imagination she shows us that these worlds are in fact way more familiar than they might at first seem.
I’ll explain. If you’ve ever used, or heard someone else use the words ‘You just couldn’t make it up’ to refer to a real-life situation, event or person, then in Fabulous Lives, you will find the stories and the protagonists that underline that saying, for they embody and capture the all extraordinariness, eccentricity and sheer weirdness of ordinary life.
The people in these stories are living in your neighbourhood, down the street, next door; they are working at your local bowling alley, on night shift at Perth Airport. They’re lying in bed next to you. They’re ahead of you in the morning coffee queue, picking their children or grandchildren up from your kids’ schools. They are, to greater or lesser degrees, all of us. Ordinary human beings, living extraordinary lives.
Living fabulous lives.
I want to unpick that word fabulous a little, first of all to take it back to its origins as the adjectival form of the word ‘fable’.
The OED gives several definitions of fable: that it is a fictitious narrative; it is closely associated with myth, relating to supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents; it might be a fiction invented to deceive (the word fib is derived from fable); a fable might be the subject of common talk, a byword, gossip. And nowadays a fable is also perhaps commonly understood as a short story (often using an animal) devised to convey some useful moral lesson (so we have Aesop’s fables, and Kipling’s Just So Stories).
Bindy’s storytelling captures all of these definitions. Here, ‘fabulous’ doesn’t mean luxury jets and material riches; ‘fabulous’ is not concerned with glamour or beauty. ‘Fabulous’ shows us how a grown man can become obsessed with a giant egg to the point where he has to sleep with it; how a holiday sightseeing trek up a smouldering volcano becomes foreplay for a much more seismic event; and how cultural prejudice, combined with greed, has potentially fatal consequences. ‘Fabulous’ actually skewers the contemporary obsession for excess, and the shallowness it masks: witness the woman who bases her purchase of a ‘fabulous’ waterside home on 20 internet searches and a sole cursory visit, only to find, once she’s moved in, that the whole neighbourhood stinks of rotting seaweed.
So we become aware of the frustrated desires and disappointments motivating many of these characters, even if they remain unconscious of the part their psyches play in their tribulations.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong with finding a naked and perfect young man on your doorstep? Yet we discover that Leonie’s interaction with this apparent gift from god (who actually does don a pair of magnificent angel wings later in the story) is tempered by her complicated relationship to her own sexuality.
However, these stories aren’t lectures: far from it. All are characterised by a dark comedy, and here Bindy puts me in mind of two other sublime short story writers, Helen Simpson and Emily Perkins, who similarly use a mordant humour to deal with the laugh-out-loud absurdity of contemporary urban life. Sometimes, we laugh because we know we shouldn’t, sometimes, because we don’t know what else to do.
While the content of the stories is far from safe, we know from the outset that we are in a safe pair of hands as far as the story telling is concerned. Bindy’s confident and fluent handling of her material is such that I find it hard to believe this is her debut collection.
Bindy’s characters become real to us because Bindy gives us just enough detail for us to recognise that these characters, like ourselves, are hugely complex, and affected, just as we are, by culture, upbringing, environment and by encounters with other people. We understand that what these characters reveal of themselves, for better or worse, can but hint at strengths and fallibilities hidden just below the surface.
For a writer to achieve and maintain this adroitness and subtlety of characterisation in not just one, but 16 short stories, is a real mark of storytelling skill. And it is also a mark of determination, dedication and sheer hard work on the part of the storyteller. I can only imagine the countless hours that will have gone into crafting and perfecting the contents of Fabulous Lives.
In reading and digesting these stories, I’ve been caught between the professional, technically-driven interest of a fellow writer, wondering ‘how on earth will Bindy resolve this narrative in a way that will live up to this extraordinary opening’ and the naked, ravenous desire of the reader to find out what happens next, even if what happens next is going to leave me open-mouthed in horrified fascination.
If I may be permitted to use this description as a compliment, because I absolutely do mean it as a compliment, the effect of reading these stories is similar to watching the proverbial car crash in slow motion. In all aspects of plot, character and setting, these stories combine inevitability with unpredictability. You know that the story-slash-car is eventually going to come to rest somewhere, yet you have no idea of the trajectory it is going to take, and how many somersaults will be involved. All you know is that how the car looked at the beginning will not resemble how it looks at the end. You can scarcely bear to consider what’s happening to the car’s occupants, but you are fierce in your desire for them to survive and overcome. Or maybe, for them to get what’s coming to them.
I think in Bindy Pritchard we have a very special writer on the scene. Short storiesare, I know from bitter experience, a difficult genre to achieve convincingly and well.
These days, I don’t often read fiction, because there are a lot of other things I need to devote time to. I didn’t realise how hungry I was for some top rate storytelling. I tucked into this volume like the lead character in one of these stories tucked into …
well, I’ll leave you to find out.
Where Bindy Pritchard takes her writing next, I simply cannot wait to find out. I think, when you’ve read Fabulous Lives, you’ll feel the same as me.
In the meantime, Bindy, congratulations on this fantastic book, congratulations to Caroline Wood and all at Margaret River Press for publishing a volume that looks and feels as good as it reads, and thank you both for giving me the fabulous—in all the glamorous and lifeaffirming senses of the word—the fabulous privilege of launching Fabulous Lives.