Review: “Bystanders” by Valerie Volk

 

Valerie Volk is a leading and much admired poet here in South Australia. Her well deserved reputation is rapidly spreading far beyond our state and will continue to do so after the publication of her latest book. This is her first major venture into prose, though she has had short stories published before.

Bystanders: echoes of Stories Past” has recently been published in Adelaide by Wakefield Press. It is a captivating collection of short stories based around well-known Bible characters. Volk took those familiar stories and has transformed them into new accounts from a very different perspective, that of the bystander, a witness to the events portrayed in the Bible from some of the minor characters our eyes tend to gloss over when reading the accounts.

I have read and admired all of Volk’s previously published books and admire her command over the English language and her exceptional gift of writing accessible poetry. It was then with interest I came to this book of prose. I had previously read and enjoyed other prose she has written and I was certainly not disappointed with this new offering.

However (why does there always have to be a ‘however’?) the early stories in this collection read like poetry; the prose almost begs to be read in iambic pentameter. Because I have read a large proportion of her poetry and I have heard her read her poetry in a variety of settings, I constantly heard her distinctive poetical voice in the first few stories. Many passages read with such a strong cadence I almost had to read them aloud. I speculated that these first few stories had been originally written as verse; after all, Volk has written verse novels before. I was so intrigued that I contacted her but she assured me that all the stories were only ever written in prose. Interesting.

The stories all shine a new light strongly on the events we Bible scholars have grown to love. To hear the intriguing and much-loved story of Queen Esther, for example, from the viewpoint of the vanquished Queen Vashti is a revelation. I have often pondered on the cruel twist life served this tragic figure and now I have had to recast my vision of her.

By way of complete contrast is the earthy tale of the soldier who was messenger to King David (story ‘Orders are orders’) during the time the king took Bathsheba as a lover. It is a tragic episode in the life of the great David and we witness the behind the scenes manoeuvrings which culminated in murder. In reading this story we hear the voice of a soldier well versed in the ways of life, men and the military life.  Volk’s writing captures his voice to perfection, drawing a truly memorable character and bringing new life to an otherwise well-known narrative.

These are just two of the 15 stories in this wonderful collection. The voices change from one story to the next which makes this such an intriguing and insightful new interpretation of familiar Biblical accounts.  As a bonus, the author has included over 20 pages of questions for personal reflection or group discussion.

Highly recommended.

Copies of this book are available in bookshops, from the publisher Wakefield Press or from Volk’s website here.

Disclosure: Valerie studied for her Master of Arts Creative Writing with me a few years ago. We are both members of a writers’ group in Adelaide and I regard her as a wonderful and encouraging friend, mentor and inspiration.

Links:

Valerie Volk, South Australian poet, writer, teacher

 

 

 

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