By Sue Orr
Random House, NZ$29.95 | Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

The bookkeeper’s wife wanted to host a dinner party. It would not be too large an affair – six guests at the most, she suggested – a small gathering to break the monotony of long winter evenings.

Sue Orr’s debut book of short stories will certainly break the monotony of a long winter evening. For the last couple of years I have had a sneaking feeling that short stories will become the ‘next big thing’ in New Zealand literature. I don’t know if this thought was prompted by the conception of the Six Pack or just because recently I have had the serendipity of reading some great books of short stories. But I think their bite-sized morsels of fiction fit neatly into the ‘empty time’ public transport creates in our lives. Etiquette for a Dinner Party stands out on the shelf. Its delicious cover hints at the contents inside: black and glossy with three formally-dressed gentlemen at a dinner table, plus snake. The book itself feels soft and pliable in the hand. With Orr’s history as a journalist, editor, speechwriter and Manhire graduate, I was interested to see what gems of social graces and etiquette she had woven into her characters and plots.

The book itself is comprised of seventeen stories, most set in New Zealand. Although the stories are traditional in their form (roughly the same length with few experimental elements), the plots are unexpected and diverse, ranging from the immediacy and torture of teenage friendship to a family waiting for the death of an old and admirably ordinary woman. At no point did I feel a story covered ground already trodden either within Etiquette or in other recent short stories. I want to call this book a collection because although plot and character are drawn quite differently from story to story, there are common themes that knit all of the stories together into a cohesive and satisfying whole.

Throughout the collection Orr manages to capture both the sincerity and emotion of the moment – jealousy, desire, hope and family connection are common – while at the same time transplanting the reader into what can be a slightly surreal but carefully constructed world: Velocity the racing pigeon, trying to create a hangi with foreigners, the lure of Frank Sargeson’s books to a wanderer (a nod to one of Orr’s influences maybe?). The best stories do both – the title story achieving this admirably – by leading the reader to a place of realisation in such a softly-softly manner that, for a moment, you don’t know you’ve arrived. Orr’s quiet but sharp observations of human behaviour and addictive dialogue make the characters likeable, even when the reader may not want to like them.

What surprised me was Etiquette for a Dinner Party was incredibly easy to read while at the same time being very rewarding. There were quite a few evenings when I fell asleep, book in hand, after trying to read just one more story. The most accomplished stories (‘Friday Lunch’ is my favourite – a story about choices, love, old friendship and Italian food) allow the reader to enter the private world of a character’s experience, especially of family and close relationships, while at the same time showing the disjunct between the reader’s knowledge of the character and how other characters see the protagonist or the protagonist sees themselves.

This understated complexity and social commentary is blended with humour and a sometimes fatalist or noir edge, resulting in quirky stories with enough depth to be able to be read and re-read again. Out of the seventeen stories there were only a few that didn’t raise themselves to reveal and twist (maybe that explains the snake?) as a good short story will. In these pieces the endings felt like well hidden punch-lines and somewhat formulaic. But I would stress again, only one or two from what is an incredibly entertaining and interesting debut collection.