In the first story in She is Haunted, a pregnant woman makes a deal with an avaricious God, offering up her mother (“a good deal”), her cat and her dog in exchange for her lover and first child. In the final story, a woman leaves her boyfriend after her mother’s death, because he now reminds her of a corpse. “Lose your mother and you lose everything,” she reflects.

These themes – grief, loss, mortality, love, belief – dominate Paige Clark’s debut short-story collection, along with fractured mother-daughter relationships. The collection is dedicated to the author’s former husband, who died of cancer; she has recently written about her estrangement from her mother. These absences seem braided throughout.

Stories range from social realism to satire to the surreal, and are set between something like the present and an oppressive near-future where the characters navigate extreme temperatures and a pervasive fear of infection.

A widow wears her husband’s clothes and lets facial hair grow, longing to be him, to put off letting go. In one story, a husband “doesn’t believe in earthquakes”. In another, a brother “doesn’t believe” in cancer or the Moon landing (both times, “the way some people don’t believe in ghosts” – a repetition that jars).

These refusals to believe in concrete threats consciously evoke both the modern mania for choosing your own truths and a tenacious willed positivity that is somehow poignant in its frailty. Many stories feature female narrators whose antennae are intricately attuned to perceived threat, a frailty and strength at once.

Clark is Chinese-American-Australian, and most stories move between the earthquake-prone Los Angeles where she grew up and the Melbourne where she lives. Many stories are seeded with racial microaggressions and outright aggressions, from COVID-related bullying of an elderly Chinese commuter by blonde teenagers, to a mother’s recollection of being taunted as “Jap” in post-WW2 California, leading her to reflect, “all the boys fantasised about me even though they weren’t supposed to”.

The title story, “She is Haunted”, divides narration between a ghost haunting her mother, waiting in vain “for grief to catch her”, and a mother whose family story closely mirrors the daughter’s. The puzzle-piece resentments of each half seem to form a nuanced whole.

In this, and other stories (particularly “In a Room of Chinese Women”) Clark combines dryly observant wit with an earned poignancy that emerges as her narrators come to realisations that carry potential for relationships to turn or evolve.

Clark also shines in satirical stories like “Gwendolyn Wakes”, about a hyper-efficient star worker at a government department that gives relationship advice via surveys, who makes a very human error, and “A Woman in Love”, about a woman who loses her dog in a divorce and goes to great lengths to clone her as a solution that, inevitably, fails to deliver as planned. They not only work as wickedly good satire, but surprise the reader with achingly human moments.

While not all stories here are equally strong, the very best are sublime. And as a collection, She is Haunted lingers as a mediation on hard times and relationships that hums with a sharp intelligence and black wit, drawn with a complex emotional palette.

She is Haunted, by Paige Clark, is published this month by Allen & Unwin.

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