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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Murray Bail

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To purchase Camouflage

Title: Camouflage
Author: Murray Bail
Genre: Stories
Written: (2002)
Length: 195 pages
Availability: Camouflage - US
Camouflage - UK
Camouflage - Canada
Camouflage - India
  • Note: The British hardover edition of Camouflage, published by Harvill Press, contains only three stories: "Camouflage", "The Drover's Wife", and "The Seduction of my Sister". The American edition, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, includes eleven additional stories, previously published (along with "The Drover's Wife") as Contemporary Portraits (1975) and also previously re-published as The Drover's Wife (1986) -- with the exception of "The Silence", included in the earlier collections but not the FSG volume. And now there's a UK paperback edition (Vintage), which appears to duplicate the US edition. Don't even get us started .....

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive, often delightful collection(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 1/12/2001 .
The NY Times Book Rev. A 4/8/2002 Daniel Zalewski
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Spring/2003 James Crossley
The Times . 12/12/2001 Anthea Lawson
TLS A 7/12/2001 Margaret Walters
The Washington Post . 21/5/2002 Chris Lehmann

Note: The Times and the Times Literary Supplement refer solely to the three-piece English Harvill edition of the book.

  Review Consensus:

  Very good

  From the Reviews:
  • "The forthcoming American collection from Farrar, Straus includes 11 other stories, a delightful bonus, though the Harvill book has the three best. For those who haven't encountered Mr Bail's work before, Camouflage, in either edition, will be an excellent introduction. Meticulously pared down, his wonderfully imaginative stories have a resonance well beyond their modest proportions." - The Economist

  • "Only a few have conceits stable enough to give them a long literary half-life -- but it's great fun to watch them sparkle and fizz before they evaporate (or blow up)." - Daniel Zalewski, The New York Times Book Review

  • "His style is flexible enough to paint perfect verbal portraits and to experiment with formal boundaries, sometimes in the same paragraph. His prose is economical, almost terse at times, suggestive far beyond what it makes explicit." - James Crossley, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Told straightforwardly, but with much meaning loaded into the events he describes, Bail's stories are subtle portraits of understated despair." - Anthea Lawson, The Times

  • "(E)legantly wrought and oddly memorable (.....) They are all sad stories, about people who have lost their way, opportunities that have been ignored, misunderstandings and the possibility of happiness glimpsed too late." - Margaret Walters, Times Literary Supplement

  • "For all the invention Bail shows in Camouflage, too many of his own efforts to lend color to his fictional world -- artfully composed as they can be -- produce much the same effect, keeping characters at a deliberate, cerebral remove at the very moment when they should be drawing closer." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The British edition of Camouflage is a slim one, with only three pieces; the American one includes these and is padded with an additional eleven. More is almost always better (and it is in this case), but the British edition presents three of Bail's finest:
       "The Seduction of my Sister" is a fanciful, wistful tale. The narrator has a younger sister, eighteen months his junior. She is always following him around, though he perceives her as, at best, an annoyance. "I hardly had time to know her", he writes early in his tale, foreshadowing the loss that the story-title already announces.
       The seducer is a new neighbour, Gordon, about the same age as the narrator. They devise an odd game, the narrator flinging things over the roof of the house and Gordon catching them. Old records are the first to go, but as the whole collection is eventually smashed to bits the narrator turns to other, unlikelier objects. "Anything I could lay my hands on I was letting go", the narrator says. He didn't mind the loss and destruction: "Nothing ever meant much to me."
       Eventually comes the final fling, a magical end beautifully wrought by Bail, and the narrator finds he is bereft.
       In "The Drover's Wife" the narrator recognizes the wife who left him in a painting, a nice meditation on another sort of loss. (He sees his long-lost wife in the Russell Drysdale painting, The Drover's Wife.)
       In the title story a onetime piano prodigy turned piano teacher turned piano tuner, the harmless Eric Banerjee, is drafted in 1943. Bail neatly presents the whole man over these few pages: his not quite fitting in, his own efforts to disappear like camouflage in the background. Among his assignments is to paint the military structures where he is stationed in camouflage: here he finds some sort of happiness -- and, as it turns out, he does his job too well.

       The stories not available in the English edition also include some very fine pieces (familiar from the earlier collection, The Drover's Wife, previously also known as Contemporary Portraits). In "Life of the Party" the narrator invites people over for a Sunday barbecue, but hides in a treehouse, observing them as they arrive, wait for him, drink amongst themselves. In "Zoellner's Definition", a man, Zoellner, is presented merely in description, a concise reduction of the middle-aged man that still manages to be resonant. Zoellner then also reappears as a type to be photographed by the title character in "Huebler", whose grand ambition is to "photographically document ... the existence of everyone alive.".
       Some of the stories are more experimental -- "Cul-de-sac (uncompleted)" -- is a clever fragment of a wildly imagined tale, where, for example, "Eminent citizens served time as statues". A story whose title is all the letters of the alphabet ("A, B, C, (...) X, Y, Z") is both tale and telling. "I am writing a story", the narrator reminds the reader -- and has his next sentence ominously note: "Here, the trouble begins." Half straightforward invention -- about Kathy, in Karachi -- the narrator still occasionally interrupts himself. It closes beautifully:

Words. These marks on paper, and so on.
       "Portrait of Electricity" is a marvelous fable of reverence, describing a tour (led by three guides) through the rooms of a venerated man -- now a museum of sorts to his memory. Everything is considered of significance, every last remnant preserved, the theory being that: "every scrap of evidence plays its part ... piecing together the whole." The nicest touch: a mirror, protected by a special barricade. The great man was the last one to use it, and the barricade prevents anyone else from catching a glimpse of themselves in it.
       There are other neat scenes and memories from Australian life in the other tales. Most are of the past, remembering a different time. "The quality of miracles has declined over the years", Bail begins the story "Healing", but he still finds the miracles, and offers a neat blend of the realistic and the fantastical in most of these tales.
       Bail writes in short, often elliptical sentences. There is an odd but captivating rhythm to the sentences, and he conveys much in his brief descriptions. Consider the opening paragraph of "Paradise":
       Breaking into light, this long silver bus. It comes rumbling from its concrete pen. Grunting away. It reaches North Terrace by stopping and yawning; its full length swings.
       Bail is, simply, a great writer. His stories are lyrical, economical, unexpected. Many are wonderfully conceived. Not all of those included here are full successes, but they are all striking -- and they all take risks.

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Camouflage: Reviews: The Drover's Wife: Murray Bail: Other books by Murray Bail under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian author Murray Bail was born in Adelaide in 1941. Winner of the Australian National Book Award (for Homesickness).

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