Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Book Review - Flame and Shadow, selected stories of David Campbell

Flame and shadow selected stories of David Campbell

St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1976      ISBN 0702214000

David Campbell was a significant Australian poet of the post-war years, with many fine collections and verses to his name. He led an interesting life, growing up on a station in the High Country, attending University at Cambridge before the War (where he represented England in Rugby), before joining the RAAF during the conflict flying Catalinas around New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. After the War he settled in the Canberra district and became a notable literary personage as his poetry career blossomed.

His poetry could be broadly classified as lyric and pastoral, and this could certainly be said about many of the stories in this collection. Flame and shadow is a combination of a short story sequence published by Campbell in the late fifties, Evening under lamplight, and other stories that coalesce around wartime flying experiences. There is little doubt that Campbell has mined his own life for events to use for this material.

The sequence of stories that make up Evening under lamplight centre around three children growing up on a remote station in the High Country, and their adventures and interactions with the adults that make up their world - parents, cooks and governesses, and the station hands. Written in the third-person, the events in the stories are mostly told from the children's perspective: the adult reader can see what is going on in the adult world - arguments, love affairs, post-natal depression - but to the children much of this is opaque and hard to fathom, as they engage on their own adventures. Campbell's quick and decisive scene-setting is a delight and owes much to his poetic facility, and the enigmatic nature of the stories, many of which have no "ending", likewise reflects much that is memorable about his poetry.

The later stories in the volume focus on flying in the Pacific during the war, and while the poetic description of scenery remains, there is little joy or hope in these stories. They reflect the brutalising nature of war, toward the enemy, towards your own comrades (turning from sadness about the death of a crew-member to thinking about enjoying his beer ration in the course of a morning), and in the end toward yourself: the final story in the book is about a returned serviceman trying to make a go of it on a selection and how his high hopes fade month-by-month.

The skill of Campbell as a writer is on show throughout these stories, each one is a mini-world in and of itself, perfectly formed to leave the reader thinking about it for some time afterwards. A fine companion to his poetry.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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