Schocken Books, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-42053-3
David Malouf, a novelist, short story writer, and poet, sets most of his work in his native Australia. His new collection of short stories, Dream Stuff, is no exception. The beauty of Mr. Malouf’s fascination with Australia is in his ability to write stories in which the setting is at least as important as character and plot. Whether he is writing about the experience of a child, a soldier, or a prostitute, the stories in Dream Stuff all convey the heat, the darkness, and the blinding light of the island continent.
         This is particularly true in “Jacko’s Reach,” one of the most unusual stories in the collection. “Jacko’s Reach” is more like a non-fiction article written with a remarkable depth of emotion than a piece of fiction. It is about the effect that a four-acre area of undeveloped, wooded land has upon several generations of the town which it belongs to—a town which has decided to build a shopping center over the area. Early in the story, Mr. Malouf describes the Reach as “a point of re-entry to memories they [the town’s citizens] have no more use for,” and then goes on to show why it can be described in this way. Through tales of murder and early sexual experiences in Jacko’s Reach, Mr. Malouf creates a chilling sense of primeval mystery, climaxing with the words: “So it will be gone and it won’t be. Like everything else. Under. Where its darkness will never quite be dispelled, however many mushroom-lights they install in the parking lot.”
         Other stories in the collection generally have a more conventional structure. Mr. Malouf repeatedly shows his fondness for the moment of epiphany, but always in a convincing and moving manner. In “At Schindler’s,” a story about a boy, his mother, and her American lover, the moment of realization is delayed, but the reader is always aware that it must be coming. The boy, Jack, has been resisting the knowledge that his father will not return from the war. He finally accepts that knowledge in a lightning-illumined nighttime scene with some of the elements of a ghost story. But rather than ending the story at that point, Mr. Malouf concludes with a peaceful morning scene, rounding out the narrative in a satisfying way. 
         The stories contain many descriptions which are so perfectly written that they stay in the mind even after the plot may have been forgotten. In “Lone Pine,” a man camping in the outback with his wife comes face to face with a murderer: “In all that emptiness, with not a house for a hundred miles in any direction and in the dead of night, they had come at the same moment to opposite sides of the caravan door.” It is hard to imagine how the vastness of Australia and the danger of the moment could have been conveyed more effectively. “Great Day,” about a family reunion, includes several powerful images of light and fire: a fire which destroys the town’s treasured museum, a dying bonfire on the beach, and finally: “the heat…of a new day coming, the light that fills the world.”
         Mr. Malouf conveys some important ideas without a hint of didacticism: the possibility of finding real love in “Sally’s Story,” the pain caused by the conflict between religious beliefs and the natural love amongst family members in “Closer,” and the power of memory, a recurring theme in his stories. Above all, he is an exquisite prose artist who is always a pleasure to read. If his works ever cause the reader pain, it is because of their beauty and the sometimes difficult truths that they contain.