REVIEW: MERCILESS GODS BY CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS

MERCILESS GODS

Author: Christos Tsiolkas
Michael Joseph RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Merciless GodsIf someone peeked into your life for an hour, an afternoon, a day without your knowledge, what would they see?

Christos Tsiolkas’ collection of short stories, Merciless Gods, offers glimpses into the lives of a diverse and memorable set of characters. Whether an afternoon or evening, a day, or a week, these glimpses are insightful, haunting, graphic and confronting, both in the language, character behaviour and the situations depicted. Several reviewers have used the word “brutal”, which fits perfectly. It is brutal. At times, it’s hard to read. And yet. For all the shocks and too-much-information discomfort, the emotion behind the stories get under your skin.

The stories explore everyday themes of love, sex, death, family, friendship, betrayal, tenderness, brutality, sacrifice and revelation. In themselves, the situations are everyday – a dinner with university friends, lovers having sex, a holiday overseas, saying goodbye to a dying parent, an argument with a partner, and coming to terms with ageing. They’re familiar … and yet, they’re not. There’s a power behind each of the stories that stops them from being relegated to the inane, ho-hum, and leaves the reader thinking. Wondering what if, how could he/she, even taking sides. Hours after I closed the book, I found myself thinking about the son faced with his father’s loss of memory, juxtaposing the father of now with the father of his childhood memories; I felt deep sadness as another son spent precious hours with his cancer-ridden father before being part of his final moments; and I mulled over the motivations of Vince in the title story.

The times he gets angry, his moments of fury, when he screams at them, throws his tray across the room, shouts at them to fuck off, just fuck off, those are the times I can’t help but feel vindicated. That’s the father I remember, the father I know. (“Genetic Material”, p136)

Does Tsiolkas write to shock? Certainly the explicit gay sex scenes will raise eyebrows. However, I didn’t feel that shock was the motivation. There’s real thought behind each story. There’s heart in each story. It’s not one for everyone and there’s no doubt it’s confronting, even draining … but it’s brilliant writing. I read this in one sitting.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Bookish treat: The old favourite, popcorn, was on standby as I read.