Note: This piece also appears in slightly different form as the introduction to Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales (Prime Books, 2003 - see below for ordering information).
Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales
Somewhere deep in the Australian bush, surrounded by an extended family of cockatoos and goannas, wombats, kangaroos and fruit bats, there lives an author who writes miraculous little fabulations, each crammed with invention and insight and humour and above all a quirky difference that makes them quite unlike the work of any other. She tends these creations, breathes life into each one and lets them loose into a far-too-often-uncaring world.
These little gems, for all their vitality, cannot exist in a vacuum. Publishing is an industry, and a competitive one at that. In my own country alone (albeit at the opposite end of the world to the one where these stories are crafted), tens of thousands of new books are published every year; among them, so many talented voices are stifled, drowned out in the clamour. These voices need nurturing, they need attention -- particularly the special ones, like that of our whimsical outback author.
Fortunately, Anna Tambour is starting to get that attention, quite deservedly so, and she is certain to get much more. Even in a crowded, clamorous throng, some voices stand out above the others -- the loudest, for sure, but also those that are different, the ones with wit and wisdom, the ones that dare to surprise.
Anna Tambour's is one of the voices that stands out, and for all the best reasons.
I talked my way into writing the foreword to this volume on the strength of a handful of off-beat and quite brilliant stories Anna has submitted to me at infinity plus. Now, having read all the contents of this collection, I have been struck over and over by a series of triumphs.
Much of the time, I have read with a smile on my face, not only for the wit these stories contain, but for the sheer audacity of the author. In many cases, I start reading and then find myself wondering how on earth she expects to get away with this premise or that. Describe them to a friend, as I did recently, and they often sound, to put it bluntly, quite silly. There's one about Robert Louis Stevenson's travels through the Cévennes which is told by his donkey; another about a magical piece of linoleum; and another which is a potted history of food, and God's distaste for our tastes, not forgetting His secret garden atop Everest... Yet, just as that how-could-she-try-this thought strikes, so it is dismissed by a twist, a turn, a feint, and you find yourself swallowed up in whichever strange conceit is currently being explored.
There is far too much in this collection to make it a worthwhile exercise to itemise its contents here, but I cannot go without dwelling on the many highlights.
Many of the stories contained here take the form of the traditional fairytale, although they are re-cast in a way that is distinctly Tambourian. "Temptation of the Seven Scientists" tells the stories of seven scientists in search of a Great Theory -- naturally enough (and it does seem natural, in this author's hands), in a forest teeming with Great Theories. This tale charms with its sheer up-frontness, and its zestful toying with the reader. In "Klokwerk's Heart" Werner creates intricate living machines while Gretina knits for the needy. On the surface, this is quite an extraordinary love story, but in this author's work the everyday is always juxtaposed with the fantastic and real magic is never far from the surface, deepening and questioning.
Quickly, you learn to expect to be surprised and then suprised again by these stories. "Crumpled Sheets and Death-Fluffies" flips and flops brom a heartfelt portrait of a writer's existence, to intense horror and then wicked black humour. Roald Dahl: meet Anna Tambour. "The Apple" is a beautiful vignette taking the reader right back to what it is like to be a small child: the fears, the distorted sense of scale of what matters and what does not, again with that dark, dark sense of fun at play.
Anna writes about the natural world as only one with deep knowledge and understanding can do. "The Chosen" is a wonderful parable of human intervention in nature, as great multitudes worship the gods of unnatural selection and assisted migration, and the strong prepare to inherit the earth. "Valley of the Sugars of Salt" sets out as the straightforward tale of a man, successful in business but not in marriage, retreating to the country to grow gourmet and largely forgotten fruit. Inevitably, the story bucks and surprises and the ground shifts drastically beneath the reader as the orchard becomes something of a, shall we say, cooperative venture.
Some of these stories are almost straight pieces of fiction, but the author can never quite resist the opportunity to dig and twist, to subvert and surprise, to confound any expectations we might foolishly have. "The Afterlife at Seahorse Drive" is about as close to mainstream as we get, a stunning evocation of the upheaval of a big move into retirement, from a tough Australian farming community to an embryonic seaside idyll. "The Rest Cure" shows that our author can do moody and disturbingly intense, too, but always there comes that point where everything begins to shift. And in "Call me Omniscient", well ... how many authors would dare to tell a story from the viewpoint of a story-telling mode: the omniscient? You just can't do this sort of thing, and it certainly shouldn't work as well as it does in this quite ingenious and audacious story. "Picking Blueberries" is one of my absolute favourites, a superb portrait of an alternative community in the early 1970s, told with a child's-eye simplicity by a young resident. There's a novel here: it really is good.
The title piece and the longest story in the book, "Monterra's Deliciosa", is another true highlight, the story of a boy born into an Iowa farming family who is destined for an entirely different kind of life in which everyone makes the reckoning of what price is worth paying for the life you want to lead.
There: you should be prepared now. Prepared to be unprepared. Be careful in here. There is an author at play within these pages. Anna Tambour is having fun with you and she has a wicked sense of humour.
You have been warned.
...Keith Brooke, June 2003