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Cheri by Jo Ann Beard

Cheri has not left me. It’s been a while since I closed the book, and yet the haunting continues. I say haunting only to convey a vague notion of ‘otherness’ - that sense of remaining inhabited by the characters long after a book is complete. It’s a feat which can only be achieved by truly great writers, and by all accounts, Jo Ann Beard is one of them. I now join the ranks of those who see why, despite this being my first encounter with her work.

Beard is an author and essayist. Her works have appeared in The New Yorker, as well as magazines and anthologies too numerous to mention.

She is the recipient of many fellowships and awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2022 Award In Literature. She is lauded by other writers, and praise for her work from other writers and reviewers is ongoing. Take this New York Times Book Review which summarises the many: “Jo Ann Beard is a towering talent... wedding intuition and observation, and forming from this union something unaccountably, yet undeniably, real.”

Now here’s the thing: this book is hardly a book at all; it’s a short story. Normally the act of presenting something as short as this is in book form would be audacious. I read the whole in 45 minutes – cover to cover. I know this to be absolutely true because the ferry ride takes 30 minutes, and I had just a few pages to go when I disembarked at Devonport. I immediately found a seat where I could devour the rest. Thereafter, as I closed the book, reluctantly leaving Cheri behind, I sat quietly stunned until I began to become aware of my surroundings again; thanks only to the sudden appearance of a cool breeze off the water.

Death – especially a long drawn-out death - is not your typically engrossing subject, and this is the genius of Beard that she tackles something we all generally avoid discussing absorbingly and beautifully, without being maudlin. In fact, even when she’s long gone into the ether, the author has somehow created a character who remains steadfastly and gloriously alive. Brilliant!

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Allen & Unwin

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