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Book Review: Bug Week by Airini Beautrais

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Short fiction collection

Award-winning poet Airini Beautrais’s short fiction collection, Bug Week, deftly steps from story to story exploring various perspectives – both geographical and personal. Beautrais slides her characters and their lives under her microscope – a young woman trying to move on from heartbreak, a male teacher fantasising about his young student teacher, an older female teacher who has become an ‘object of general revulsion’, an albatross at an open mic night.

I like short fiction. A lot. I enjoy the brevity, the impact of the story. In a collection of stories, the worries and niggles that press on the writer’s mind come through, sneaking and snaking through the characters and the narrations, no matter how diverse. In Bug Week, these are clear – our transgressions and our attempts to disassociate ourselves from the natural world, love and sex, death and birth. Although quite different in tone and setting, the strongest stories from Bug Week reminded me of stories from Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn, particularly Watkin’s story ‘The Archivist’.

Beautrais’s stories are concerned with bodies and flesh and their uses and their decay, pitting humans against and alongside animals. Bodily functions and animal desire give many stories their heartbeat – hands and legs and touching waists and strange naked bodies like ‘peeled crustaceans’. Often the characters dislike bodies, the dirtiness of them. In the story ‘A pair of hands’, the controlled Richard is confronted by the gory reality of our physical selves, observing of the hands that the ‘severed ends were wiggly – lobes of fat, dangling tendons.’ In ‘Bug Week’, the main character likes her lover’s bed sheets clean ‘as if there had been nothing bodily happening in them’. This character is like many others in the rest of the stories, yearning for organisation and cleanliness and purity. ‘I just want some semblance of order in my life,’ she says, but it’s clear containment isn’t possible: nature will burst through any constructs we create to maintain control.

The inevitability of death is the rotting underworld you sense beneath most of the stories. The title story, ‘Bug Week’, is an off-beat entry into the world of the collection. The major themes of fertility, sex, death and boredom are introduced through the unnamed main character who works at a museum. She’s bored in her marriage, disgusted by the banality and reality of her messy life, and embarks on a shortlived affair with an entomologist who spends time in a ‘microscopic daze’. Some charming sentences mingle with the grotesque – the entomologist’s office was ‘piled to the ceiling with filing drawers, each with a little pinned death inside.’

Most of the stories work well, thought a few of them are definite highlights. The story ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’ stood out for its light touch and dirty confessional style. Amy, the main character, remembers a friendship and the summer it all fell apart, looking back from middle-age. She details the way she lived, the intimacies of youth, now replaced with the intimacies of motherhood. Regrets are put under the microscope here, and one sentence drew together the bittersweet sadness of aging: ‘Someday I looked in the mirror and saw lines forming around my eyes, the beginnings of grey, and knew that possibilities had narrowed themselves, that I wouldn’t live forever.’

The biological nature of life hides on the edges of many stories. In one story, pregnancy is described: ‘bodies grew inside our bodies and emerged out of them, and screamed, and fed, and grew’, placing the birth alongside a butterfly’s metamorphosis, an emergence into the world.

Another highlight was the story ‘A summer of scents’. Smells and colours permeate all the stories, but this one uses it to greater effect. Beautrais’s style and confidence abound in this story. Again there are references to microscopes and the rank reality of nature – ‘the lake smelled faintly of microscopic algae’. The story centres on the inhabitants of an apartment block in post-Communist Germany, and gently reminds us that life is forever changing. Herr Rabe knows that change is necessary: ‘The other option was to remain here, and that was simply worse.’

The final story is titled ‘A quiet death’, though the death in the story is anything but quiet. The narrator is able to see her body from the afterlife, and she sees it, already ‘savaged by disease’, now defiled and desecrated. Though this is an awful and sickening act, the narrator isn’t overwhelmed. She sees this as merely another moment in which women are destroyed. It’s a sombre ending to a collection of stories that have moments of softness, humour and gristly detail.

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