Stories about the human condition

November 4, 2009

The Scourge of Termite-ists
By Allan Scarfe
Seaview Press, 2009
260 pages, $22.95
Contact Seaview Press at

It is always difficult to review the work of someone you know personally. I have never met Allan Scarfe but have corresponded in the past with him and his wife Wendy about a few of the non-fiction books they have jointly written. The Scourge of Termite-ists is Allan's third book.

Fourteen of the short stories in the book are new; the 15th, originally published in Overland No.33 in December 1965, is about Shova, a little Indian girl the Scarfes befriended and saved from certain death when they lived in India.

The stories are essentially about the human condition. Like all books of short stories, some are better than others. Easy to read, they give us an insight into the day-to-day realities of living.

The author allows us to roam in the minds of characters we rub shoulders with everyday. The more successful short stories in the book are those that give us the opportunity to explore the lives of the characters.

The first story — "The Scourge of Termite-ists" gently highlights how, under Australia's new security laws, even the most innocent citizen may legally find themselves languishing in a concrete box somewhere in the Pacific.

In "Time divides Us All", John returning home to Greece to see his ageing mother realises he is neither Greek nor Australian.

Aunt Cassandra and her cat Esmeralda rub shoulders with the Parisienne and her bruises. "The witch, the Agitators, the Swimmers, the Nude" and "Shova" bare their souls to the reader. My favourite is "Time Divides Us All", a story every immigrant in a nation of immigrants can relate to.

Many of Scarfe's short stories are bound to touch a raw nerve in the reader. A word, a sentence brings a flood of emotions to the fore that has been kept out of sight and out of mind until Scarfe's words open the trapdoor to a subconscious that has kept the reader looking too closely at themselves and their lives.

Scarfe excels in putting the thoughts of ordinary people on paper. He is able to expose the realities of everyday life in prose that demonstrates how reality crushes our desires and expectations. The reader is often left with the taste of despair in stories that grind on to their inevitable conclusion.

Within the confines of the petty realities of everyday life, greater more important issues slowly emerge in the book. Loneliness, dependency, cruelty, violence, futility, uncertainty, desperation cascade into a pool of common human experiences.

The Scourge of Termite-ists needs to be dipped into, a story read, put away, forgotten, the book to be picked up the next day or the next week. Reading all of the stories in one sitting drains the body and mind of all emotion.

The Scourge of Termite-ists will never be a bestseller. It is too dark, it is too rooted in the everyday realities of human experience. It holds up a mirror that shows us who we are, as we desperately try to escape the painful experiences of our day-to-day lives.

If you're looking for escapist fiction, this isn't the book for you. If you're interested in the human condition and want to learn more about yourself, you need to seriously consider adding this book to your personal library.

[Review first published at]

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