Sex & Death: Stories edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs - book review

by Sarah Jane Barnett / 28 October, 2016
The range of voices and perspectives in an entertaining book of short stories is one of its strengths.
Ceridwen Dovey: her portrayal of sex after the birth of a child will be recognisable to many.
Ceridwen Dovey: her portrayal of sex after the birth of a child will be recognisable to many.

For a project that began as a “pub chat”, editors Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs have put together one of the most compelling and funny books to come out this year. Sex & Death is a collection of 20 short stories that explore, as the title promises, the themes of sex and death. Sensations such as Yiyun Li, Ali Smith and Damon Galgut appear alongside writers Claire Vaye Watkins and Wells Tower who may be less familiar.

Without exception, each writer creates his or her own true and adult world, and there is much pleasure to be had with the complex, flawed characters in these stories. In Ben Marcus’ exceptional “George and Elizabeth”, George must clean out his dead father’s house. We follow George’s encounters with his therapist, his father’s mistress and his elusive and famous sister. It’s an astute exploration of loneliness and connection, and many of the stories touch on these topics. A common thread in Sex & Death is the way our manners and culturally created facades can barely contain the hunger and con­fusion underneath.

In “Fixations”, many readers will recognise Ceridwen Dovey’s portrayal of marriage and sex after the birth of a child. With tenderness, her characters navigate the dehumanising experience of post-partum anal fissures, and the way motherhood can cast a clinical lens on the female body. Wells Tower’s story “The Postcard” considers fame and infidelity as photo­grapher Cora meets a young lover. It’s a masterful and surprising story about how little we know ourselves, and how we figure that out.

One of the strengths of Sex & Death is the diversity of experience and perspectives. Half the writers are women and half men; they come from a range of countries, including Australia, Nigeria, the US, South Africa and Mexico. Their protagonists are people of varying ages and nationalities. Stories written from the point of view of the elderly never reduce them to silliness. Many of the stories are funny and all are entertaining. It is the range of voice, tone and perspective that makes this collection exceptional.

LS4116_b&c_Sex-and-DeathUndoubtedly the short story, with its compression and singular focus, its power and punch, is an ideal form for exploring humanity’s most essential themes. In their introduction, the editors say, “Look at us in our ties and our stockings, taking vitamins and buying prophylactics, arranging mortgages and emptying bins, ameliorating, ordering. We’ve almost convinced ourselves. But underneath, closer than we dare to think, is the reddish nature of humanity.” This humanity preoccupied me – I found myself making excuses in order to read one more story. At one point I forgot I was reviewing the book and it simply became an act of pleasure. Sex & Death examines how we get through life with our biological imperatives hanging over us, and holding us up. Or how we make meaning from this beautiful mess.

SEX & DEATH: STORIES, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs (Faber, $32.99)

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