Comments on Keeping It in the Family, a volume of short stories by Pippa Kay. (Published by Ginninderra Press, 2018.)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
I’ve never been entirely convinced by Tolstoy’s aphorism. Is it really true that happy families are all alike? And can’t we find some commonalities among unhappy families? But I’m being too literal. Perhaps what Tolstoy is really saying is that unhappiness is the stuff of plot; without it, there’s no story. It’s the particularities that make each case unique which excite our interest.
So it is with this collection of stories. The thing that unites them, despite their variety, is their light touch. Though they range from gritty to whimsical, there is nothing heavy-handed in any of them. Some of the stories deal with subjects that would be lurid in the hands of a less disciplined writer, but are told here with understated realism. Pippa Kay lets her characters, several of whom are children, speak for themselves, and their voices are never stagey.
In the opening (and eponymous) story, the characters stagger tipsily near a crumbling cliff edge, and this edginess characterises most of the stories. These are people who live in an uncertain world, inflicting damage on one another and on the witnesses to their follies — most often their children. They are all stumbling about dangerously close to their doom.
A recurring theme is how easy it is to misinterpret other people’s behaviour. Their motives are always at least partly unknown, hidden as they are in depths of other minds, and often unknown even to themselves. This vagueness becomes literal in “The Fog”, but it is suggested in most of the stories and provides an element of mystery that keeps you not only intrigued in the same way that a puzzle intrigues, but also emotionally ambivalent and ethically uncertain.
Pippa Kay does not shrink from reality when it is cruel or sordid, but neither does she wallow. Though there is drama aplenty, and ugliness, there is pathos too. This is not misery-lit.
In these stories, the author neither condemns nor excuses. This is their great strength.
Janita Cunnington, author of The River House (Random House 2017), and Child of Mine (Random House 2018).