Review of Murray Middleton, When There’s Nowhere Else to Run
Storms hit Sydney the week I read When There’s Nowhere Else to Run, Murray Middleton’s debut collection of short stories. From my desk, I watched the sky yellow. And then the storm crashed through, flinging hail at tin roofs and smashing trees, flooding, hauling sand from beaches and blasting it up streets.
It seemed the right accompaniment to Middleton’s work. His collection, which won this year’s The Australian-Vogel’s Literary Award, is harrowing and beautiful, charting lives that are broken and disconnected, disrupted and in pain.
A mother flies to Perth to give up her son to her ex-husband, unable to cope with the child’s disability. A father, raw from losing his wife, resents his children at a busy showground. A high-achieving schoolgirl is hit full-force by first love — for a teacher. A drifter, grieving over his father’s death and lack of compassion, finds the beginnings of connection with two new friends in a pub.
Middleton writes with exquisite control. Influenced by Hemingway’s iceberg style — economical prose that hints rather than states — he generates force and pathos by signalling emotional trauma and letting absence speak. In Forget About the Prices, a mother tracks her addict son to a sugarcane town. Middleton never references heroin directly. Rather: “‘You’re looking thin,’ she said, eyeing his wrists. ‘Am I allowed to buy you dinner tonight?’”
The mother is quiet and brave, but we know she’s far from her comfort zone — in stiff clothes unsuitable for the heat, worrying about the “young girls” hitchhiking “with their thumbs out”, praising the “choreography” of fire dancers twirling on the grass. Her physical journey to this remote place reflects a spiritual one to connect with her tormented son as best she can. There’s no grand intervention. She buys him an ice cream — a call-back to innocence — and makes him cry by simply saying: “No one’s ashamed of you … I thought it might be important for you to hear it.” With fine, pared-down prose, Middleton delivers poignancy through deftly placed emotional moments.
Throughout the collection, Middleton achieves that sought-after literary object: an emotionally real portrait of human experience. This is achieved, in part, via his choice of subjects. He explores the fracture-lines of relationships, the torn bits of “ordinary” lives: affairs, the death of friends, impending suicides, concealed abortions. From this, he shows how humans react to trauma: often, ignobly.
His characters are subtle and their moral ambiguities relatable. A middle-aged woman, trying to reconnect with her husband after an affair, worries that she doesn’t feel sufficiently guilty. A teenager — whose parents care for a friend traumatised by the Black Saturday fires — is focused more on “stumbling up the driveway in the dark, trying to avoid Dad’s jonquils” with his first lover.
A man drives to his girlfriend’s students’ performance, looking forward to having kids of their own. He “can’t think of anything nicer than finishing his run for the day and picking up a few youngsters from school, still wearing his Australia Post uniform, maybe stopping at a milk bar to buy Calippos if it’s stinking hot”. Then, a “skull crashes into his windscreen, cracking it like a spider’s web”, leaving “a large smear of something on his right … wiper. Membrane of some kind”. He knows he should stop, but he keeps driving. His terror is numbing, dry-mouthed, and communicated via his partner’s concern at his attempts to project normalcy. Exemplifying a skill in choosing a narrative’s key moments, Middleton doesn’t show the man’s resulting suicide — just the last load of groceries he buys his love, stocked with her favourite things.
When There’s Nowhere Else to Run ranges through Australian life, telling stories of men and women, adults and children, of schoolbuses and Fitzroy markets, wood smoke and fishing boats, proposals in Sydney parks and cricket on evening streets. Within this, Middleton renders the continent in all its diverse beauty, coding the landscape with metaphorical significance. Quaint Daylesford — a place of couples’ retreats, of “sipping tea and staring at the creamy-pink magnolias” — underscores how wrecked a marriage is after infidelity.
In his finest piece, The Fields of Early Sorrow, an overworked newspaper editor drives his sister, Katie — silent, smoking, sunglasses over the “striking splash of her blue eyes” — to rehab. When they stop at an isolated caravan park, she disappears. Frantic, the narrator runs along the highway, calling her name. A shock of flowers and the force of roadtrains show his panic: “The surrounding fields of canola had burst into dazzling displays of yellow … grain trucks rattled past.” Then, “I caught sight of a figure sitting in the middle of [an] abandoned drive-in” — conjuring innocence and the family movies of their youth. Like the mother in Forget About the Prices, the man’s emotional struggle to reach Katie is embodied in landscape: “It was difficult to gain access to the property because of the rows of cactuses and the barbed wire fence.”
He scrambles through and finds her sitting blankly, “facing the giant white screen”, hands “smeared with blood” from barbed-wire wounds on her knees.
“I’ll live,” said Katie. She ripped a wildflower from the soil and tucked it behind her ear. ‘‘Although I’m not sure how I feel about that.’’
At this, I looked up from Middleton’s prose to the storm outside. My roof was leaking, spreading a stain on my carpet. I didn’t care. I had to keep reading. I shoved a coffee cup under the drip and turned back to the page, relishing this important Australian debut by a major new talent.