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)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more
If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it
103768 2019-03-21 09:31:27Z Social issues

If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it

by The Listener

The little signs among the banks of flowers said, “This is not New Zealand.” They meant, “We thought we were better than this.” We were wrong.

Read more
Extremism is not a mental illness
103785 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

Extremism is not a mental illness

by The Mental Health Foundation of NZ

Shooting people is not a symptom of a mental illness. White supremacy is not a mental illness.

Read more
PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more