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Whanganui Midweek - 2021-11-24

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Author masters the challenging art of the short story

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The Girl in Black and other stories By Michael Rudge Reviewed by Paul Brooks .. .. .. .. .. ..

The short story is a difficult art form; acclaimed novelists baulk at the very idea. Trying to flesh out characters, plot and ideas in less than 5000 words — often a lot less — requires literary skills available to few. I have been privileged to have had writers ask me to read and review their stories or books of stories. They have not all been universally acknowledged for their prowess in this field, because, for some obscure reason, short stories by little known authors are not high priority at publishing houses. For that reason, many have little choice but to selfpublish and hope for recognition afterwards. And yet, some writers have left me flabbergasted at their obvious proficiency and knack for the short story. I can only envy them and try to do their work justice in my review. One such writer is Michael Rudge. I recently reviewed his second short story collection — Of Other Lives — and was so impressed I went hunting for his first. Unfortunately, it is out of print, so copies are hard to come by. I therefore value the copy I found. Reading The Girl in Black and other stories was a pleasure, but more than that. This review is to encourage lovers of the short story to seek out his forthcoming collection — The Parts We Play. The Girl in Black and other stories was printed in 2017 with illustrations by the author. The title was the third story in a collection of 17, all very different, all worth a second read. Michael Rudge treats his readers as intelligent adults, allowing us the freedom to use our imaginations and our own knowledge of the world. The titular tale is a collection of moments, a series of observations leading to a character transformation as perceived by the watcher. Michael once told me that the story deliberately lacks the traditional structure of a beginning, a middle and an end, yet, as a reader, I found those components, and in the right order. The end echoed the beginning, creating a circle but letting the protagonist move on to a different circle; it’s just that we are not there for that, but we can imagine what it looks like. Short stories don’t necessarily have to end with a punchline; sometimes they just need to lead to another thought — either of the reader or the author. It doesn’t matter. The Girl in Black and other stories takes us to places many of us have never been, but wherever in the world Michael leads us, his characters retain the quality imbued by a skilled writer: they are human. Some make us think beyond the story, others let us enjoy the moment, some have something to teach. They are all as three dimensional as the author wants them to be, so we can empathise, sympathise, or merely observe. He describes, and we are there; he speaks, and we listen. River of Life, for example, is a morality tale, told by a master storyteller. Set in a land so unlike New Zealand . . . but it could have been here, because there are people in circumstances just like it in this country. If we knew them, we would hold the same admiration for them as we do for Ahmid. You might not have the chance to read The Girl in Black and other stories, although enough requests could generate a reprint — but it would be worth your while to seek out his third collection, and introduce yourself to Michael Rudge.

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