Lily Brett [Hamish Hamilton/Penguin] 2014, 213pp, RRP $29.99
Brett’s latest, a 42-strong collection of short stories (or sometimes near-anecdotes or even jokes), is being touted as a loving tribute to the city she’s called home for almost 30 years, and while, at first, it might sound like a diversion from her darker outings, like her poetry effort The Auschwitz Poems, her characteristic sadness does creep in often. And oddly, this is actually best when she tears herself away from Big Apple praising and concentrates on the challenges of family, the trials of a long marriage, the certainty of ageing, her many proud neuroses, the threat of anti-Semitism and the fear and sadness she says was passed to her by parents who survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz.
A Destination, the kick-off, tries to explain why Brett became such a walker in NY (one reason was due to her fear of being underground in the subway, although now she embraces its efficiency and multiculturalism), while Lilitchka and Yakub are, respectively, about her Russian pedicurist and her Uzbekistani shoe repairer (do they know that she wrote so affectionately about them?), and Hiroko’s Place attempts to make sense of a strange Japanese restaurant that serves such iffy dishes as vegetables cooked in ketchup.
Psychic details how she tried to consult local mediums and tarot readers as part of research for a novel (and nearly regretted it), and A Lawyer gets more personal and less NY-centric, as we hear of how she missed her exams while at law school in Melbourne, caught a screening of Psycho instead and later became a rock journo for an early Aussie music mag and interviewed Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Mick Jagger and Sonny & Cher (!!!).
It’s the more intimate tales here that continue to impress, especially the ones involving her Dad, who survived the Nazi death camps and now lives near her and, despite getting into his later 90s, still devours chocolate, doughnuts and ham (despite his Jewishness) and has an eye for busty ladies.
Sometimes deceptively light (Café Dante seems to be about the imminent closure of a favourite coffee house but actually laments the loss of ‘70s radicalism) and frequently bitingly funny (So Jewish ponders how much she fears being a Yiddish stereotype), this demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that Brett loves New York, but it’s considerably more than it appears, and not at all the Sex And The City bandwagon-hopper the cover (and some of the promotion) might suggest.
The final offering, The Beach, combines so many of its concerns: New York (how much locals love the seaside), Melbourne (how her family fled there to escape the summer heat), childhood (the simple delights of sitting on a blanket in the sun and munching on boiled eggs) and the melancholy of the many Jewish refugees that joined them on the sand, all displaced, all haunted by death and all passing down their pain to the next generation.
Only In New York is available through Penguin Books Australia. Click here to purchase your copy.