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.
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.
- Valerie Volk – order any of her books from her website
- Wakefield Press – order books from their site
- Review: A promise of Peaches by Valerie Volk
- Review: In Due Season by Valerie Volk
A review of A Promise of Peaches by Valerie Volk
Published in 2011 by Ginninderra Press.
A Promise of Peaches is Valerie Volk’s second book of poetry. I wrote a review of her first book, In Due Season a few days ago. Actually, to call this new work a book of poetry is to do this volume a disservice. It is a verse novel.
The inspiration for this novel came from Valerie’s own experience as a child, but I hasten to add that it is in no way autobiographical. It first existed as a short story. I remember when Valerie read this story which was an assignment when we were part way through our Master of Arts degree. The suggestion was to expand it into a novel. A little later I recall that our lecturer suggesting that she rewrite it as a verse novel. I think at the time Valerie claimed not to have ever read anything in this specialised genre before, but typically, Valerie threw herself into research mode and the idea grew into the book.
A Promise of Peaches traces the life of Claire, from her early memories as a young girl growing up in post-war Melbourne through to her frustrations in an aged-care facility. Her parents take in as boarders a Czech refugee couple, Viktor and Irena. The story, told in a variety of poetic forms, reveals the feelings and thoughts of each character. Each poem is short, often no more than a page or two at most, and every one sketches a poignant vignette of the inner feelings of the character. Valerie has used different, distinctive voices for each person, a difficult task for any writer and one she succeeds in achieving.
The initial excitement of the struggling post-war Australian suburban family in welcoming a couple from a totally different culture and social background is soon swamped by misunderstandings, rising tension and frustrated passions. Claire’s own innocent sexual stirrings, aided by Viktor, add to the tension and conflict. The author has skilfully woven all of these emotions into the beautiful fabric of her narrative. Her poems are often sparse, tight and understated, sharpened down to bare essentials. I particularly like the three special blues poems inserted into the text late in the writing process.
Somewhere in the night a child is crying.
Somewhere in the blackness of the night a child is crying bitter tears.
Scorching searing tears that never seem to end.
From: Claire, Blues Interlude 3 p.163
In the very next poem we read how Claire sees Viktor only once many years later. She recognises him instantly, but he doesn’t know her, nor the profound effect his actions have had on her throughout her life.
I highly recommend this verse novel, not because Valerie is a valued colleague and friend, but because it is a captivating read. Many readers have told her that they couldn’t put it down, that they read all the way through in one sitting. Even though I’d read the manuscript in several of its draft forms, I too found myself reading right through (though I admit to stopping for lunch at one stage, only because it was my turn to cook).
By the way – it’s not every day one gets to read one’s name in the acknowledgements page of a novel. Thanks for sharing the journey with me Valerie; it was fascinating.
You can buy this, and her other books online on her website: Valerie Volk
In due season: poems of love and loss by Valerie Volk is a very special book. It is beautifully presented with delightful photographs illustrating many of the poems.
While it it is a slim book physically, one cannot say that about the poems. All the poems have an impact on the reader. One is taken on a journey through her life – of joys, delights, deep emotions, frustrations, fears and faith. It is a journey from first love to deep loss, from deep contentment to the emptiness of death.
Valerie’s poems poignantly trace the roller coaster ride she encounters in 2008 when her husband is diagnosed with cancer. Some poems hark back to the early days, from their first meeting, first passions of love and the demands of young family life. Other poems are filled with agony as she sketches in verse form the deterioration of Noel’s condition. And the final poems highlight her response to his death, the experience of feeling numb at the time of his funeral, the emptiness of their home without her love and the slow and sometimes painful climb up the mountain of normality.
‘How am I?
Hard to say. I veer between
a stoic resignation – “Wonderful,” I hear them say –
and silent screams of anguish.
Somewhere in me there’s a deep gaping hole
as if a vital part has been ripped out.’
from ‘A Kindness of Strangers’ p.59
I met Valerie during the time we were both completing our Master of Arts course. She has become a respected writing colleague and encouraging friend, one I deeply admire and whose comments on my own poems are highly valued.
Some of the poems in this volume I have a personal connection with, because Valerie presented them in writing workshops for critiquing during our studies for our degrees. One couldn’t help but be touched deeply by the grief she was enduring at the time but still she pressed on professionally.
Highly recommended reading.
Order the book on Valerie’s web site:
- Valerie Volk – you can order any of Valerie’s books on her website. You can also read about Valerie’s academic achievements as well as writing awards she has gained.
The photo (above right) is from the cover of her book. It has deep significance to Valerie – but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.
Volk, Valerie, 2009. In due season: poems of love and loss. Pantaenus Press, Adelaide.