The first story in Jennifer Mills’s twenty-seven strong collection hit me with the force of a well-cocked punch in the guts. A mute boy sticks his knife into the eyes of a row of sleeping horses, and in the eerie quietness of the scene – in the calmness, the unfeeling delivery of the narration – it felt as if the smell of the warm, thick blood was in the room with me. I read the rest of the collection as if paralysed, as if moving would unsettle what lies under the skin of the text and cause the sentences to rupture. I imagined, as the mute boy does, a cloud of flies spilling out and crawling all over me.
Mills uses the perspective of a child throughout the collection, each time to devastating effect. In ‘The Jungle Will Swallow Anything’ a young girl watches her mother push drugs out of their roadside diner in Quintana Roo. At night the girl listens to her mother laughing with the men that stop on their way through, and she is persuaded by the crazy kid from school that the tall man who visits from time to time is a Vampire, taking her mother’s blood through the needle the reader knows to be pumping heroin to her blood. In ‘Hello, Satan’ a boy spends the night on a round-a-bout, checking the broken wrist watch his father promised long ago to fix. The devastation lies in the point where Mills’s skilful rendering of young, fragile innocence clashes with what the reader can infer: these children are on the edge of abandonment, they are about to be let down.
Throughout the rest of the collection, Mills explores the effect of this through an impressive collection of characters, of outsiders, who are all struggling to connect. The stories move between the long stretches of Australian highway to crowded Beijing, to Mexican roadhouses and car parks and motels and places and relationships turning to shit. A sister drives from Perth to Adelaide to tell her sister, estranged for fifteen years, that their mother has died. A man, just out of prison, hitches a ride with an elderly woman who unflinchingly reveals she’s on the run from the ‘bastard’ who twice broke her arm. A middle-aged lady moves from town to town in a campervan, trying to erase the scent of inhabitants past. There is a sense of transience, loss, and searching that runs through this collection, though these characters, each moving through something, seem to be on the way to nothing else except the fleeting moments when they bump into another lost soul.
This sense of moving towards nothing is beautifully encapsulated in the story ‘Architecture’. In this surreal, dream-like story a young female graduate is hired by a man named Mr Wang to rebuild his city in China, the landmarks of which, at first, seem to resemble the buildings and parks of the narrator’s memory. Mr Wang has no deadlines and an infinite amount of money, and the narrator sketches buildings, redesigns roads, and researches materials. But no construction is ever done, and eventually she realises Mr Wang is never going to build. She realises they both need the city to stay empty: ‘There is no function to this work except its destiny of growth’. The purpose is to keep going, to keep acting as if things are moving forward, because to be moving is, at least, something.
Despite this overriding mood, The Rest is Weight is not a monotonal collection. Far from it. In each story Mills colours this bleakness in a different shade, managing to illuminate the common elements of disparate lives. It’s a humourless collection but often it’s dreamlike, hallucinatory, full of fantastical images that rise out of dusty roads and fractured conditions. It’s an elegant and well-crafted collection of previously published stories that when read together, packs a severe punch.