A couple of weeks ago I wrote about finding theme in novels, using Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – a Year 12 text – as an example. Over the past few months I’ve also been working through Tim Winton’s 2004 book The Turning with a student in Year 11. I write ‘book’ rather than ‘short story anthology’ or ‘novel’ because The Turning sits somewhere between the two, presenting seventeen separate stories that – when seen as a whole – also support a wider narrative. It makes sense, however, to look at each story individually before considering the links between them (links that, on the third read, I’m still discovering). It struck me – as I started thinking more deeply about The Turning – that searching for theme in a short story is quite a different exercise to finding theme in a novel. For years now I have returned to the following quote from Anne Enright to frame my understanding of the short story form:
“A story is something told, something that really needs to be said. The most we can say perhaps is that a short story is about a moment in life; and that, after this moment, we realise something has changed.”
In a novel we observe how the protagonist (as well as other characters) changes over time, across many – connected – ‘moments.’ A short story, however, doesn’t have the space for such a journey. The beauty of this form, for me, is its intense focus on one moment; its ability to show how transformative a single detail can be to a person’s life. As a reader, I turn to short stories when I feel the need to slow down, to concentrate, to notice the specific rather than the general. Sometimes I like to think about writing as if it were the zoom function on a camera. Imagine looking through a camera at a field. A novel is the whole image – the sky, the grass, the roots beneath the soil; a novella zooms in a little closer, perhaps just the grass; and a short story is a single blade of grass. (To take this analogy even further you might think of poetry as being a drop of dew on that blade of grass!)
In thinking about the seventeen stories that make up The Turning, my student and I have attempted – in each story – to identify two things:
What is the “moment in life” for this story? In other words, what is the most important moment, the moment that stands out?
After this moment, what has changed?
That change gives us a clue to the story’s theme (just as looking at what changes for a protagonist across a larger narrative can indicate the theme of a novel).
Some examples from The Turning:
There are a couple of stand-out moments in this story. First, Vic Lang is kissed – in a particularly memorable way – by an older girl with a missing finger. Later in the story he is painfully injured in a fishing accident.
Both of these moments cause Vic to realise the link between pain and memory. This is – in essence – a coming of age tale. Vic learns that adult life is both beautiful and painful, that pain is necessary. As Melanie says – “all the big things hurt, the things you remember. If it doesn’t hurt it’s not important” (p.26).
It’s hard to look past a shark attack as a key moment in a story. Frank (Leaper) is surfing with his brother Max. Max is attacked by a whale shark, and Frank swims him to shore.
After this moment Frank realises that, in spite of the way Max treats him, he cannot help but care about his brother. And it is this love that stops Frank from succeeding – “Just the thought of you was a weight in my legs, and the more I cared the worse it was” (p.187).
‘Long, Clear View’
Vic Lang is barely a teenager when his Dad leaves. Suddenly, Vic is responsible for his mother and baby sister. He takes his father’s rifle from the wardrobe and stands with it at the window, watching the town.
After this Vic is constantly on guard. He is unable to relax for years, well into his adult life. “You can hold out for as long as it takes,” the young Vic thinks, “to have everyone home safe, returned to themselves and how things used to be” (p.204).
Three stories with three quite different themes – the necessity of pain (‘Abbreviation’), the burden of love (‘Family’), and the burden of responsibility (‘Long, Clear View’). There are, however, thematic links that run between these stories, and through the other fourteen. The ideas of memory, the power of the past over our present selves, and the often difficult but inescapable fact of family recur throughout the collection.
What makes The Turning a little more novel-like in its structure, however, is its links between characters and narrative events. The town of Angelus serves as a backdrop for many of the stories, and Vic Lang and his family (his mother, his father, and his wife) are prominent recurring characters. Details in a number of stories hint at something sinister going on in the background; there is another, larger, story that runs through the book about the underbelly of Angelus, about drugs and violence and police corruption. When we zoom out on The Turning we see a picture of a place and a group of people that stretches across decades. This is what, for me, makes The Turning so unique. It is a book that simultaneously satisfies my interest in story, and my desire for moments of change.
Tim Winton lives in Western Australia. His other novels include The Riders, Dirt Music and Cloudstreet. In 2013 The Turning was adapted into a film, with seventeen different directors interpreting the stories. Unlike the book, the film lacks the overarching character and narrative connections.