A series of short stories that encounter spirituality in a refreshing, beautiful way

The High Placesby Fiona McFarlane

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 280p $26.00

Fiona McFarlane’s Anglican upbringing adds resonance to her latest book, The High Places, making what could be a humdrum collection of short stories with willy-nilly endings into mostly elegant little gems.

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An Australian writer whose first novel, The Night Guest, received several prestigious awards, McFarlane writes stories with religious references ranging from terms like “burnt offering” to allusions to the Bible, along with speculations about religious belief.

For example, a character who’s a nonbeliever describes faith as a deep-down knowing, something one discovers rather than makes.  And when one loses that knowing, one prays to something one no longer knows, hoping to get it back.

There’s God-talk in most of these narratives, but it’s never cloying. McFarlane infuses her writing with a sense of irony and an instinct for poetry, as when a character describes the Holy Ghost as a “large feeling of singing toward something that sings back.”

McFarlane’s eccentric characters add offbeat perspectives to notions of spirituality. Someone might hear a ticking sound, for instance, and wonder whether it came from the “ivory Jesus” crucifix on the wall.  A character in “Those Americans Falling from the Sky” maintains “constant bird chatter to God on the subjects of rescue and redemption.”

Reverend Adams, in “Man and Bird,” has visions of heaven so vivid that he has to rely on his parrot—who seems suspiciously like the Holy Spirit and whom the narrator calls “that messenger of God”—to guide him.  As the story ends, the white parrot “flew above the car, above the revolving earth, until finally, man and bird together reached the sea.”   

Whether referring to the Holy Spirit or not, birds play an important role in these stories—perhaps suggesting the influence of Gustave Flaubert, whose short story “A Simple Heart” includes a parrot. In “Violet, Violet,” there’s a robotic parrot who has a direct line to the supernatural. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a marine biologist who talks to the ghost of Charles Darwin says he no longer believes in God and refers to his situation this way: “[I felt] God’s absence upon my shoulders, like a heavy flightless bird.”

Most of the stories are set in Australia, generally in the present. The characters live in a world enhanced by magical realism. The typical plot leads to a moment when someone changes, sometimes very subtly. In some circumstances, fate rescues them from their troubles. In other cases, the characters muddle through to an end that seems inconclusive. But it isn’t.

In “Art Appreciation,” Henry Taylor’s mother wins the lottery, and because he wants his mother’s approval and a large monetary gift, he decides to marry a suitable woman who takes art courses in order to better herself. But then he remeets the stunningly beautiful prostitute with whom he was previously involved.

Sometimes, the characters are allowed a slight glimpse into the meaning of their lives. As the book’s dust jacket suggests, Flannery O’Connor does something comparable in several of her stories that also offer split-second epiphanies.

In “Cara Mia,” a 14-year-old girl lives near a church whose cross lights up in blue neon at night. She has a crush on her mother’s significant other, and when he drunkenly mistakes her for the older woman, she, inspired by the light, does the right thing.

In “Mycenae,” a woman touring Greece is also inspired by light. After she is made to collude with her friend who commits adultery, she stands under the intense sun and has a sense of the gods who had previously lived in and then abandoned this place.

These 13 stories were written over a 10-year span. A few stories fall flat with plot subtleties that seem too elusive, but most are engaging, and suspenseful. The oldest story, “Unnecessary Gifts,” and one of the more traditional, is about a father whose sons temporarily go missing. When they’re found, he reflects on the fragility of life, especially as it concerns his elderly parents. The newest story, “Buttony,” about deception and how it brings out the worst in people, especially children, is a delightful reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”   

McFarlane told The New Yorker that she is “drawn to moments when people do things that are mysterious even to themselves.” The best-realized stories here are charged with these moments, and the title story, the last in this collection, is a near perfect example.

The main character, Jack, hears a Sunday radio broadcast about finding God.  “’Let’s think about it,’” says the announcer.  In the Bible, man met God on elevated locations like Mount Ararat, the Mount of Olives, Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai.  There, ancient people asked God for favors—which he granted.

Jack needs a divine favor. His sheep ranch is suffering from a five-year drought. But it is situated on ground below sea level with nary a mountain or even a hill in sight. How can Jack find God and make him listen to his plea for rain? That question drives the story. The answer is, he can’t.

Jack’s unnamed son, though, may be able to persuade God to send rain. Unfortunately, until the story’s mysterious ending on an Abraham-and-Isaac moment, nobody—least of all Jack—listens to the boy or understands what he means.

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