Cowboy Genes, by Wes Lee, is a poignant and accomplished short story collection from a writer with a lot of promise. Lee’s first volume of short stories builds on her work that has been anthologised and has won the Katherine Mansfield prize: her distinct voice and ease of which she moves through different characters makes the collection certainly worth a read.
Short stories can often be trickier creatures than novels: the reader is expected to be involved with a wide array of characters and scenarios across the space of a few pages. The writer must convey the essential information about their characters as quickly as possible without the luxury of multiple scenes that make up a novel. Along with having to master lightning speed exposition, what is left unsaid is also an engaging aspect of short stories. Lee’s stories leave expanses open for the reader to speculate about the characters as well as touches of detail that show Lee’s skill and establishment as a writer.
The opening story and collections namesake, Cowboy Genes, is the portrait of a woman suffering after a medical procedure that has left her bedridden and vulnerable. She takes comfort in reading Westerns in a secluded house in the Blue Mountains. The brash machismo of Westerns gives Lee’s character an escape from her immobility, and Lee captures the isolation of illness and recovery with precision. Another story features two girls who engage with their eccentric neighbour with a mix of adolescent curiosity and daring that is a perfect representation of the sexual excitement of growing up and suburban boredom.
The stories have the qualities that would be familiar to readers of literary short stories ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Raymond Carver. Lee’s pared down narratives and small epiphanies are part of the literary heritage of short stories. However, Lee’s characters and dialogue elevate the stories from being too formulaic or derivative. Cowboy Genes feels like a great start to the career of a talented writer who, I hope, will be more daring with her form in her future work.