Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts is the second of Twelfth Planet Press’s series of short collections by Australian female writers. It’s a laudable project in itself, and also a sign of the fine work that Twelfth Planet, among other critics and publishers, have done in promoting female voices in what remains a male-dominated marketplace.
Love and Romanpunk is the second published book in the series, but the first I read, although I dipped into Sue Isle’s collection while reading this one and it was impossible not to compare them, to some extent. While Sue’s book is fairly closely linked and consistent in tone, Tansy’s book is much more stylistically varied. And while Nightsiders is quite a dense read (in a good way), I found Love and Romanpunk a much easier read. The author’s prose is really smooth, and I found I sped through at least three of the stories in the book. Without turning this into a comparative review, I’d say that both books will appeal to slightly different readers, but that both are good enough to expand their readership into the other’s market. I would be hard pressed to select a favourite of the two.
Love and Romanpunk opens with its weakest story, which is unfortunate but probably necessary, both because of the chronology of the stories, but more importantly because it sets up a lot of the groundwork which the latter stories will riff off. “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary” takes the form of an alphabetical list of mythological beasts which have affected the author’s family. This bestiary structure felt a bit unnecessary, and I pretty much forgot about it, because the family history quickly takes over. The author’s love and knowledge of Roman history shines through in her working of the mythology through the story. Perhaps this love was the problem, because ultimately I felt that the story tried to cram too much in, with the result that the majority of storyline is “told” to us by the narrator, at one remove from events. I didn’t feel any real immediacy or connection to what was happening. I imagine other Roman historians will enjoy the cleverness in the story, but to me it felt more like a summary of events.
The exact opposite is true of the following three stories, which is why they work so well. “Lamia Victoriana”, the second, brief, story, doesn’t tell us anything; it just dumps us into the middle of complicated relationships and events which quickly spiral out of control. Set, as you would expect from the title, in Victorian times, it is a kind of whirlwind romance with a dark ending. It works, because it’s subtle, moving toward its end powerfully but gently, and also because the emotions feel real.
“The Patrician” is the strongest story in the collection, for my money. Set in a neo-Roman theme town in contemporary Australia, it tells the story of a young girl who encounters a mysterious man who fights monsters, and who reappears through her life at irregular intervals. There is a bit of Doctor Who meets Buffy here, but I mean that in the most positive way, because while the story may be indebted to the themes and tones of those two shows, the author has created a story which stands proudly on its own without comparison. The monsters help to drive the narrative, but at heart this is a story about the relationship between the two central characters, skewed off-centre by the mysterious man’s perpetual youth, as he reappears through the protagonist’s life as she ages. A lot of the poignancy of the relationship derives from this contrast. Again, it’s the subtlety of the story that most impresses here. The author doesn’t need to explain any of the emotional impact of their encounters, because the characters and dialogue are so well realised that the reader lives it, feels it for themself. I was surprised, on looking back, that the story was only twenty-seven pages, because it felt so epic, on an inner scale.
The book could have ended with “The Patrician”, but Tansy provides a kind of sequel/coda in the final story, “Last of the Romanpunks”. Set on an airship in a steampunk/scifi future, it features the grandson of last story’s protagonist thrust unexpectedly into his own drama. This is the kind of swashbuckling, fun ride that I expected on opening the collection. Again, though, the author manages to throw a couple of messy relationships into the mix. It felt like a small come-down after the depth of the previous story, but it’s still a very nicely written action piece, and an enjoyable way to end the book.
I have been thinking for a while about how to best sum up Love and Romanpunk. In some ways it delivered what I expected, but in others it surprised me. I expected this book to be smart, to know its history, to have a sense of fun, and some laughs, and some steamy romance. Those things are almost Tansy trademarks. And it does have all those things, but in the end, all of those things felt almost peripheral to the things I liked most about the collection.
What’s not often talked about, with Tansy’s writing, is the fact that there is a real emotional courage to her best works, a sense that she is ready to get into her gumboots and rubber gloves and muck about in the messiest, ugliest, most confusing of human emotions and relationships, and to try to find a path through them. It’s that depth of emotion, sometimes sweet, but just as often brutal and painful, that drives the best of these stories into being something a cut above the majority of works out there. The fact that they are also smart, and fun, is just the icing on the cake.