I don’t suppose I’m the target audience for this book, Little White Slips, a short story collection that follows the lives of various fractured female characters. Although there was plenty to relate to, the overall impression this gave me was like eavesdropping on the salacious or frivolous (depending on the story) secrets of some female patrons in the corner of a cafe. These characters pour their hearts out, revealing candid information about their issues with weight, self-esteem, their work lives, sex lives, and their relationships with men and other women. That’s just the kind of intimacy author Karen Hitchcock deals in, and she does it well.
So why did I pick this up if I knew it wasn’t in my usual reading vein? Well, as with a few of my recent reads, I sought out Little White Slips on the strength of the eponymous story, which was featured in Best Australian Short Stories 2010. Something in that story really spoke to me. It was bold, fresh and so well-written it compelled me to delve deeper into Hitchcock’s body of work. (Disappointingly, this collection seems to be the only fiction she’s published so far. Here’s hoping, since it’s now been out a few years, that a follow-up is on its way.) ‘Little White Slips’ is reproduced here, of course, and was a pleasure to revisit. A few other stories also reach similar heights.
‘Drinking When We Are Not Thirsty’ was, without a doubt, the strongest story on offer, and a fine way to jump-start the collection. It’s a sprawling, gut-wrenching account of a medical student – also a wife and mother – preparing for her specialist exams. Hitchcock, a medical doctor herself, so wholly inhabits this character, who is unflinchingly determined, but utterly overwhelmed. Hitchcock positively bleeds onto the page, so potent is the character’s turmoil. A charming Irish doctor proves a wicked foil, and the story left me ultimately reeling.
Unfortunately, ‘Drinking When We Are Not Thirsty’ set the bar unprecedentedly high, leaving subsequent stories feeling like letdowns of varying degrees. Each story had great little moments, but I was sometimes left wanting. An early story about familial relationships and eating issues proved an early highlight, but was followed by a lacklustre Miranda July-esque comedy about a psychologist’s wife who uses a Freud figurine to solve her marital communications breakdown. I’ve no doubt this had layers of unappreciated complexity, but I found its relentless quirkiness trying. Another such mid-range story, featuring polar bears, was similarly exhausting.
Ultimately, this unevenness prevented me truly enjoying Little White Slips, although I concede an intellectual appreciation for it. Hitchcock’s prose was consistently great. There were several strong stories, each told with deftness and subtlety; others, however, felt tonally off (as in ‘Shrink’, which failed to amuse me). I’m not sure I’d recommend this collection as a whole, but, as a debut, it shows promise. Hitchcock’s medical knowledge, it’s worth noting, gives her a unique perspective, which may prove entice some readers. Despite my misgivings, I look forward to Hitchcock’s next collection. As a short fiction writer, she has great potential.