First published in 2004, by Allen & Unwin
Recently I picked up my old copy of Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, which I vaguely remember once having to study either for school or uni. Black Juice is a collection of ten short stories, each one strangely compelling and sprinkled with her usual mix of mystery and beautiful despair. My favourites are ‘House of the Many’, ‘Yowlinin’ and ‘Singing my Sister Down’, but really, each of these ten stories is as intense and disturbing as the other. They are saved from being uncomfortably confronting by such tiny, sad reflections on human nature and the world, which sink their teeth into all the vulnerable parts of your mind and body you’ve been foolish enough to expose.
What I love about these stories is that they all pack a punch and are in your face; they drop you right into the centre of the action and leave you to flounder your way out along with the characters. The worlds the characters inhabit are alien and troubled and feel like a sort of faraway mimicry of the world we know. They are utterly fascinating, because Lanagan only ever hints at the details of how they came to be, dropping a few well placed objects and hints and allowing us brief flashes into what the characters think about these worlds. Everything seems off-kilter, slightly amiss, an impression of reality. Her stories are scary with what we don’t know about them, but because they all have the slightest trace of the familiar, they are still, in all their strangeness, a little too close to home.
What is real and recognizable about these stories is the human emotion, and more specifically the human despair, that is woven through them. The insights Lanagan gives us about who her characters are as human provides the perfect amount of tenderness and compassion to balance the fierce unforgiving landscapes. This is what we understand, and what strikes so close to home. That she can do this over and over, for each story, yet in completely original ways, is what makes Black Juice such a brilliantly realised piece of work.
The imagination and originality put into these stories is remarkable. Lanagan’s writing is beautiful, as I’m sure is countlessly mentioned – her prose is poetic and expressive without being heavy-handed. I think the word is effortless - her writing doesn’t try too hard but still knows exactly what it is doing. But the real magic is in how Lanagan builds up time and place and landscape and then, delicately, shows us the cracks. Black Juice is quite extraordinary, and a wonderful reading experience.
"Irini performed the final part for all of us: stepped forward, knelt on the pavement, and, holding her skirt decent in the wind, bent and kissed Grandma's forehead. It seemed only right - she was the one who knew Grandma best, these last days. It's the role of daughters to move ever away from their mothers ... and it's likely, isn't it, that someone will step in, and appreciate everything the daughters can't, being so busy pushing themselves out into the world, saying, No, no, I'm not you."