Bird North and other stories by Breton Dukes review

by Sam Finnemore / 13 October, 2011
Breton Dukes is a recent graduate of Victoria University’s vaunted creative writing programme, and his earlier work in journals like Sport and Turbine gives some hint of what to expect from his debut collection – brief, stark sentences, uncompromising honesty in language and content, perfectly timed flashes of lyricism. The polished tales in Bird North and other stories add sudden contrasts and subtle confounding of a reader’s expectations into the mix, demanding careful reading – and rewarding it handsomely.

The cover blurb draws attention to Dukes’s focus on men’s lives and their local antecedents, and all the male characters here ring wryly and often hilariously true. Yet these pieces hinge on place just as much as gender: characters are seen knuckling down or breaking out from within regimented environments – hospitals, call centres, scheduled residential care – or elsewhere discovering their demons (or other unexpected challenges) reflected in seemingly empty natural surroundings. The title story is an excellent if brutal example, with scenes of careful normality bookending a terrible episode in the South Island wilderness; others take a less shocking but equally direct and honest approach, within settings ranging from the beach to a bottlestore.

Some standout stories have the unmistakable ring of lived experience behind them – call-centre chronicle The Moon, and the Orderly – which matches carefully built mood with a delightfully unexpected deus ex machina. Others build elegant character studies upon life changes from adolescence to marriage to unclehood, or on crises and moments of doubt (the grimly amusing tale of a blokes’ night out in “Johnsonville”). Confident, nuanced and unselfconsciously local, this is an accomplished debut.

BIRD NORTH AND OTHER STORIES, by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, $35).

Sam Finnemore is an Auckland reviewer.
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