Josephine Rowe first came to my attention when I read the evocative ‘Brisbane’ in Best Australian Stories 2010. That story resonated with me a great deal, so I decided to seek out her other work. How a Moth Becomes a Boat, her first published collection, fit the bill. This is a series of standalone vignettes — slices of life, you could say — which focus on mood and character. Some are hopeful, pretty, while others are bleaker and more melancholic. The settings, themes and character demographics vary wildly, but the whole collection is unified by Rowe’s distinct prose style.
It sounds trite to say it, but Rowe’s writing is just mesmerising. This is literary fiction at its barest and most lyrical and I found these stories left a consistently big impact on me. I wish this didn’t off so gushy, but Rowe’s writing is very intense and focused. She has a gift for saying so much with so few words.
Although this collection is short, it’s perhaps best to savour it and spread your readings out over a few sittings. This means the themes and ideas can percolate. Because, really, the beauty of vignettes lie in the reader’s own private exploration. Plough through too quickly and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice (also, since these are so short, having to reorientate yourself every three to four pages will frustrate). How a Moth Becomes a Boat is more than just technically impressive; it is also emotionally affecting.
If I could level one criticism at How a Moth Becomes a Boat it’d be that some of the individual stories overreached a little. By this I mean that some were too preoccupied with being Profound and Moving. That’s not to say that there were any stories that stood out as bad, just that the weaker ones felt a little engineered. When it works, though, it works. Josephine Rowe can render everyday moments in such a way that they feel full of beauty and meaning. This is an Australian writer to watch.