Lives of the Dead

and other stories

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Photo by Julianne McWhirter

Photo by Julianne McWhirter

In this short story collection, Jane Skelton writes cool prose about hot landscapes, about characters seeking relief from strong emotions.

Her characters twist and turn in the violent weather that is trying to break them, while inside their bodies the turmoil is as great as or greater than the outside world. Combined with the spare prose, the emotion of the weather and the landscape is almost unbearable, except that, like waiting for the southerly buster on a hot afternoon, we wait to know what will happen to these characters. Will the storm pass over the islands, will it rain in outback Queensland and take the pressure down? But in these stories the pressure is never released, it intensifies.



These evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape and keen observations of the people who inhabit it, bring to mind Thea Astley and Jessica Anderson.

Travellers on highways and trains are preoccupied with the lives of the dead, with lost children or parents. A woman searches a suburban deadland for her missing mother. A rural family struggles on land that fails to sustain them. A young man’s attempts to leave the strictures of family life ends in violence. These lives are tied up inextricably in the Australian landscape.

‘Lives of the Dead’ is a haunting and lyrical debut collection by a talented writer.

Linda Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Lives of the Dead

  1. virginia shepherd

    The book cover reminds me of the beaches of Queensland, and I know some of the stories are thematically Queensland with those heated red and purple landscapes shimmering away, glittering- but each landscape is as much a character as Cecily at Rozelle, the Fool on his train, or the lonely man in the Blue Mountains cave. The cover reminds me also of the south coast with the winter sun a sinking orange globe amidst the sharpness of the shadows. I know the strong winter winds of the south coast, the sand flurries settling into those footprints, beside the half-buried bones of the seal. I think of the fishing shack, how we found an old ballerina-painted tin in the garage that had letters in it, to and from the original owners/builders, one of whom, ‘addie’, is surely the person for whom the street (adelaide avenue) is named. They were trying to spruik up interest in people coming to stay and fish at the lake in the fifties. Seemed like it was hard work. There was talk of cars of the day taking several hours to negotiate the track (now sadly bitumenised and people whizz along it in 15 minutes, running over anything in their way….). What would they have thought, addie and alby, if they could have forseen the influx over easter (is it ‘eater’ actually) and christmas ho ho ho, the 4wds bursting with blokes, the big boats ploughing thoughtlessly through the waters, eating away at the little beaches, pulling out a hundred flathead in a day….But in a way, theyre still there, addie and alby, preserved in their tin of letters where a different time was compressed. Though silting up from all the oyster leases and the fierce winds washing sand into the entrance, now a little channel though it was once a scary glass green torrent with swirling vortices, the lake remains. It was there before and it will be there afterwards. Its a testimony to all it contains, a compressed history with an ever-changing face. And i do remember meeting the old lady (addie) about 50 years ago. She was twisting blue ticks off her dog and showed me snakes preserved in bottles. She was wild-haired. The locals called our place ‘crazy cottage’ back then.

    Well, I think your book is like that tin in some ways, containing within it so many enmeshed histories and all the word sculpting, chipping and polishing, that goes with writing such finely crafted stories. Opening the book releases the vapours of condensed memory, unskeins the interior worlds of its characters, always with compassion and a sense of lifes irony (unbearable,or uplifting though that irony may be). I think it was F “Scotch” Fitzgerald who commented that a writer is no one person, but many. True of us all, the many in one, but only a writer preserves those lives. And as Ilya Prigogine noted, only humans so break the symmetry of the winging arrow of time by preserving these marks in the sand- what it is like to have been humans at a certain locus in the expanding space-time continuum, which is always rushing us headlong into the future………

    A book I will read many times

  2. Anna

    Hi Jane,

    I finished reading your book, finally, amongst the bouts of student marking,
    reports and flu. it’s a really strong collection. I can see snippets of
    other things I’ve read before but it’s now a nicely crafted set, with
    connections between pieces that work well. It’s been a long time coming but
    your work has a kind of maturity that a lot of other people’s first
    collections don’t have.

    One thing I like about it is that while you have a loving kind of touch with
    the landscape, you capture that strange sense of displacement and alienation
    that I think a lot of Anglo and European Australians have in the country
    somehow without realizing it. As well, a lot of your human subjects are
    pretty much the fringe kind of person. Your descriptions of the natural
    world are fabulous. I see a lot of familiar landscapes from places you’ve
    lived in, just the ones I know about though, they’re not all familiar to me.
    It’s great that your experiences can bear that fruit. It’s nice the way the
    landscapes don’t repeat themselves at all too. They feel very tangible, not

    So, congratulations on the collection and I’m looking forward to the next

    Anna Couani


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