Given its title, perhaps I shouldn’t begin with Jenny Argante’s short story collection After the Act, but since the local literary activist was my first writing mentor and it was at her insistence that I joined Tauranga Writers, it seems fitting. After the Act is not a new title.
First published in 2012, it is a collection that has stood the test of time, with its everyday but sharply-observed accounts of the human condition. As is the case with established writers, many of the stories have been published elsewhere, and the book includes some prize-winning tales, but I’m always intrigued by which stories an author will bring together in a collection, and how they might arrange them. It’s rather like choosing flowers for a bouquet; it depends on who the bunch is intended for, and the message you wish to convey. Here, the stories stand out for their simplicity. There are no high-action hurtling-through-space car chases or high fantasy realms.
Set mostly in suburbia, in upstairs flats and at kitchen tables, Argante’s focus is on her characters, particularly their inadequacies, as they navigate marriages, divorces, parenthood. There are stories about loss and disappointment. Regret. Acceptance. Between these pages, a social worker consults a young mother whose baby is born gravely ill, a mother and daughter are at loggerheads over a lost roll of film, a man buys his wife a Christmas gift, leading to a surprise realisation. Readers will see themselves in this collection, or perhaps a sister, or an aunt.
Writers will want to turn to the eponymous story, ‘After the Act’, the pop of colour in an already vibrant bouquet: in it, a woman, let’s call her Helen, writes herself into a story, the act of writing creating distance and safety and allowing her to resolve past hurts. Overall, this is a quiet collection, but expressive, and full of heart. Recommended.