Sonja Dechian is the winner of the 2019 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. She receives $5,000 for her story ‘The Point-Blank Murder’. Dechian was announced as the winner of the Jolley Prize by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke at a special ceremony at Readings Hawthorn on 11 September that featured readings from all three shortlisted stories by the authors.
The judges had this to say about Sonja Dechian’s winning story:
At once tender and sinister, ‘The Point-Blank Murder’ is a story of parental vigilance, with all of its new terrors. ‘That’s one of the things about having a baby,’ our narrator explains, ‘you have to think things through.’ On an isolated rural property, a couple learn how to comfort and care for their newborn. The rhythms of parenthood are new and strange to them – almost otherworldly – and that strangeness echoes against the landscape. One of the pair is listening to a true crime podcast to give the days shape. Why does its distant violence feel so claustrophobically resonant? Why does the sleepless quiet of their rural idyll feel so fraught? This assured story is drum-skin taut – it trusts that its readers will find their way into its dark corners, and then emerge, bleary-eyed, back into the merciless sunlight.
I don’t read a lot of short stories so it’s not a medium I feel I can adequately evaluate within its intended context. However, I really did enjoy this short story, The Point-Blank Murder and I agree with the judges: it’s both tender and sinister. It really took me back to those early first baby days, the delirious haze of joy swamped with tiredness and all of your senses, and even your usual judgement, completely off kilter. This story is deceptively layered, take this passage here:
‘I think this is normal, to constantly check that your baby is still alive and to imagine all the ways you might accidentally kill her. She’s our first baby. Our only one, I mean.’
I could entirely relate to this sentiment. With all three of mine, I constantly checked for life and I certainly, in my more tired and delirious moments, drove myself crazy thinking of all the ways I might accidentally kill one of them through my inexperience or as a consequence of my exhaustion. But that very last sentence, ‘our only one, I mean.’ Such a remarkably concise way to convey so much.
‘It’s all about time, with babies. We measure their lives in days and then weeks: once trivial blocks of time that must now be counted, changes catalogued, remarked on. But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? The accounting of time, that’s where it begins. How long until I can sleep, how long has the baby slept, has she had enough sleep or am I doing something terrible to her brain by not knowing how to make her sleep? And yet, the days grow so long when you’re not going to work, immersed in routine, that time on the larger scale begins to unravel, reflect. You forge links with your own childhood in this way, reconnect with the long past while the life you had just months ago becomes distant, foreign.’
Time factors heavily within this story as the couple are very much living out their daily lives to the rhythm of their baby’s needs. Our narrator, the baby’s father, passes the time he spends walking each morning with his baby listening to a true crime podcast, The Point-Blank Murder. As he walks and listens, he’s headed to a creek that is supposed to be on the property, one he is convinced he can hear, along with frogs singing, which should only be around if there was water, yet he never seems to find it. Back at the house, instead of resting during her baby free time, his wife becomes obsessed with uncovering a smell that repels her. The sinister undertone and mysterious implications put me on edge, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and I was bracing myself to a certain degree. Given that it’s a short story, all of these things remain unresolved and left to the reader’s imagination, which is really my main beef with short stories in general. I’m always left wanting more. Unless that’s the intention?
The Point-Blank Murder is a tautly delivered, compelling story. I extend my congratulations to the author on winning the prize.
About the Author:
Sonja Dechian is the author of the short story collection An Astronaut’s Life, which won the 2016 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award the same year. Her writing has previously appeared in The Best Australian Stories, New Australian Stories 2, and elsewhere. She has co-edited two books of children’s writing about the Australian refugee experience, No Place Like Home and Dark Dreams.