Book review: What Fear Was, Ben Walter

A debut collection of stories surveys contemporary environmental and climate terrain.

The stories in Ben Walter’s debut collection are not all about Tasmania. A frozen Indian mountain range is the cause of great peril in the vivid ‘Wrapped in Ice, Speaking’, while much of the tension in ‘The Day the Music Died’ occurs aboard a Qantas flight to Fiji. Other pieces feel geographically ambiguous: a massive slide in a suburban backyard, a rising river in a foreign country, a sleepless man roaming for Halloween tricks. 

Yet, What Fear Was is inarguably a Tasmanian book, written by a Tasmanian writer (and current fiction editor of the state’s literary journal Island) and featuring Tasmanian landmarks both real and invented, from the Tasman Bridge to the Royal Company Islands. Many of Walter’s characters are proud Tassie locals, indulging in classic outdoor pastimes like fishing and nature walks. Inclement weather sometimes forces them to head for shelter: Tasmania gets a lot of rainfall, which supports the growth of its World Heritage forests. Rain patters throughout this collection too, swelling rivers, warping wood, and boring holes through roofs. 

But now the state is drying up. Drought conditions in 2016 resulted in the re-emergence of the flooded town of Crotty from the bed of man-made Lake Burbury, a phenomenon addressed in ‘The Lake’ and ‘Atlantis Minor’. The failure of hydro affects the electric grid, and dry conditions leave the landscape vulnerable to conflagration. Despite attempts in ‘Beast Evolving’ to trap and tame fire, it breeds, threatening residents, bushwalkers, and wildlife in the collection’s eponymous story. 

Walter is aware of how his eco-consciousness might come across, providing a rebuttal on the reader’s behalf in the penultimate story, ‘An Anti-Glacier Book’. Its use of sceptical footnotes is one of several attempts to translate environment into language. Indeed, the narrator of ‘Below Tree Level’ thinks he can literally read trees like text: ‘My eyes were fixed as if a storyline was being unveiled before me, and I was a part of that storyline’. However, as we learn in ‘Landscape Within Landscapes’, ‘[t]o see into the land required vision without eyes, and to speak of the land required a voice without a tongue’. 

Like a fast-flowing river, Walter’s sentences are both dense and fluid, capable of lifting you off your feet and carrying you far from where you began. A chorus of talking flatheads, a corpse that takes blurred paparazzi shots, and a shipwreck that rises from a riverbed to take another bash at an enemy pylon are all unlikely subjects, but they feel convincing in Walter’s confident hands and lyrical prose.

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Some of the more frenetic premises (what if a deceased cricket commentator answered phones at a German art gallery? What if comic actor Leslie Nielsen, stuck in traffic for decades, picked up a hitchhiking fan?) risk tossing readers onto the shores of disbelief. Still, these provide a potentially welcome distraction from the undercurrent of credible threat in the environmental and climate stories. 

As in the real world, when the landscape turns bizarre, Walter’s characters attempt to interpret, catalogue, control, and even eradicate it, to no avail. Slowly, like the walking group in ‘Conglomerate’, we realise that something terrible is going on in the natural world. But we are, of course, too late, and the land is done with us. ‘Do you see now?’ it demands. ‘Nothing is fine and there is nowhere that you can hide.’

What Fear Was by Ben Walter
Publisher: Puncher & Wattmann

ISBN: 9781922571205
Format: Paperback
Pages: 174pp
Release date: 1 February 2022
RRP: $29.95

Brooke Dunnell is a writer, reviewer and workshop facilitator living in Boorloo/Perth. Her short fiction has been featured in anthologies and journals and is collected in Female(s and) Dogs, published by Spineless Wonders. Her first novel will be published with Fremantle Press in 2022.