Vanessa Berry takes a diffident peek at the animal world and herself

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ESSAYS
Gentle and Fierce
Vanessa Berry
Giramondo, $26.95

Artists generally dislike having the sobriquet “quirky” attached to them. Rightly so: it is a pallid descriptor, all coy distance and faintly ridiculous camp. But I couldn’t help feeling it applied to Vanessa Berry’s fourth book, Gentle and Fierce. Here, Berry uses a number of characteristic techniques – along with a detached style – to reflect on animals, as well as her life as an author, zine-maker, daughter, and younger self.

Berry’s style relies on diffidence, on placing objects before subjects; as she writes in a chapter about a wildlife park in Germany, “I was external to the scenes going on around me, like a background figure”. This externality is mirrored in the syntax (Berry is fond of employing “for” as a conjunction) and sinuous circumspection of her prose; a typical sentence manages to combine the passive voice with a movement like a camera tracking back from its object until the subject finally comes into view: “On the other side of the path was an aviary inside which an owl stared from orange eyes the colour of marigolds.” (My italics.)

Vanessa Berry’s essays have a Russian doll-like structure.

Vanessa Berry’s essays have a Russian doll-like structure.Credit:Janie Barrett

Tortuous and twee, this remove from Berry’s subjects – zoomed-out, lightly ambling – characterises not only the writing but the essays’ construction. Glass Fish gives us rooms within rooms; Rabbit Island, a “thought-path” that crosses continents; Frank the Bear, a museum corridor that doubles as a time machine. The most unusual occurs in Lassie Come Home as Berry imagines a torch beam tracking across various objets mémoire through the dark. The most clever, Junk Bug, splices Kafka with an eye for ephemera reminiscent of Georges Perec.

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Berry’s Russian doll structures sometimes recall that other anthropologist of memories and mental association, Gerald Murnane (see, for example, Perec’s Cat, with its interior worlds and visions within visions).

Lassie Come Home, makes the affiliation clearer still, as Berry writes: “I envisage [a memory] almost as if it is real, but even in the most vivid of my mental images, there are shadows and elisions. Sometimes, when I come up against a shadow, or feel the edges of what I remember and what I imagine, I wish I could step through memory, be truly inside that time and place again as if it is the present.”

In a chapter concerning The Neverending Story and time’s passing Berry evokes a sense of youthful indirection, an “urge to disappear”. The sentiment recalls Charlotte Wood in her early twenties, reading, “with a bleak sort of recognition”, the protagonist of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip: “Thankfully,” Wood wrote, “that young self of mine – who like [Garner’s protagonist] hung around endlessly waiting, who could not, would not stand up for herself – has faded into my long-distant past.”

When Berry reflects on her younger self there is the sense of a person who, in their twenties, inhabited “the underside of life”, not so much in subversion as self-abnegation, “full of plaintiveness and masochism”, as Wood put it.