Poetry Shelf review: Emma Neale’s The Pink Jumpsuit

The Pink Jumpsuit, Emma Neale, Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021

Emma Neale, novelist and poet, has recently released her first collection of shorter prose pieces. Short fictions and tall truths, we read on the cover, and that gets me musing on the way fiction might draw upon the truth of experience while also liberating imagination. Perhaps the fiction that affects me most embodies kernels of human truth no matter how the fiction stretches and concertinas. And that is exactly what The Pink Jumpsuit does – and it affects me deeply.

The title of the book, and the title of a short story inside, references the cover work by Sharon Singer (‘Wanderlust’, 2019). The painting is itself like a short fiction and a tall truth, with its bounding enigma, accruing questions, miniature narrative. The rough texture of the acrylic on canvas renders everything a little more vulnerable, a great deal more mysterious. The diminutive figure, standing stock still in an ambiguous setting against an ambiguous dark, is a whirlpool of determination, despair, resignation, hope. Emma’s story references the painting in an epigraph and admits: ‘”Wanderlust” somehow leads me away from any specific narrative I think the artist might be trying to tell, and tips me sideways, Alice-wise, into a free-fall of memory.’ Emma’s story pivots on an awkward gift (‘a slim-fit boiler suit in a light denim fabric’) that the father gives the mother on his return home. This genius heart-smacking story traverses gift giving, relations rupturing, the way silences are like the packed suitcases on the figure’s head in ‘Wanderlust’, and the way we may never truly know anyone (if indeed ourselves). The story heads back towards the painting and you go keeling through the what you have heard so far and what you see when you fall into the wanderlust image. Then there’s the cracking hit of the final line.

Decades ago I bought an American anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (1987) and it felt fresh and rich in writing possibilities. I loved the idea of fiction suddenness, was excited by the ultra short. Years later we have flash fiction, short fiction, prose poems (and more I am sure) jostling and connecting and opening wide the short story paradigm. Emma’s collection returned me to the notion of suddenness as an appealing reading effect. Read Emma’s collection and you most definitely experience the sudden as you jolt or gasp or shudder. Then again, think of this collection as a deftly composed piece of music, because the reading effects are multiple. You will also imbibe the slower paced, enjoying a story like a slow-release tablet on the tongue (or in the heart say).

Suddenness goes hand-in-hand with the power of the twist. The twist in the tail or the gut or the heart of a story. Take Emma’s ‘Worn once’, the best break-up story ever (reviewers seem drawn to this story!). I refuse to tell you what happens and dilute the effects as you read. Or take ‘Party games’, the child’s birthday written on extreme-nightmare setting, and experience the sudden jolt. Ah, these stories have to be read to be delighted in. Creepiness might creep up on you, the sharp edges and debris of living, the tidal slap of despair, fear, wonder, joy.

Any book by Emma Neale underlines what a supreme wordsmith she is. At times I stop and admire the sentences like I might admire the stitching of a hand-sewn garment.

Like Emma free-falling into memory, sideways skating after looking at ‘Wanderlust’, I am free-falling and sideways skating with this glorious book. I am free-falling into the power of truths, diverted by fiction, the dark the light, the raw edge of human experience. and this matters, this matters so very much.

First time I have done this on the blog! I would like to give at least one copy of The Pink Jumpsuit away to someone who writes a poem / sudden fiction / short short fiction (300 words or so max) jump-started by Sharon Singer’s ‘Wanderlust’. I would love to post some pieces on the blog. Send to paulajoygreen@gmail.com by 2nd November.

Emma Neale, a Dunedin based writer and editor, is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent collection is To the Occupant (Otago University Press). In 2020 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry.

Quentin Wilson Publishing FB page

Emma Neale website

‘The Pink Jumpsuit’ appears at The Spinoff as an essay.

Interview at NZ Booklovers

Anna Jackson-Scott review Nine to Noon, RNZ National

Carole Beu review at Kete Books

Emma in conversation with Lynn Freeman Standing Room Only RNZ National

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