The short story often seems like literature’s poor stepchild. Novels get more attention, and they’re generally credited with carrying more thematic freight; even Henry James’ or Leo Tolstoy’s briefer works are overshadowed by their monumental novels. But there are rare writers who produce excellent novels that don’t loom over their fine short stories. In the case of prizewinning Australian writer David Malouf, this may be because he is also a prolific poet, and a poetic sensibility saturates and undergirds all of his work. His short fiction, which has been published in Australia since the mid-’80s, constitutes a substantial oeuvre, and reading it in toto offers a chance to watch his development from prosier works to more lapidary, evocative, affecting ones that are closer to poetry. Three of the four collections included here have been previously published in the United States. The latest and perhaps the best, Every Move You Make, is new to American readers. In these stories, very sad things happen repeatedly—cancer victims contemplate solitude, daughters die, and fathers realize how little they knew them. Indeed, Malouf’s stories seem to verify that sadness, unpleasant surprises, and loss are at the heart of the short story, which as an art form leans to a clear, crisp presentation of human misery. Without that element, you get something like “The Domestic Cantata,” a slice-of-life tale that, like the rest of his few cheery stories, merely meanders. Malouf’s best stories are about pain or death, be it a lover’s fatal fall, the murder of an elderly couple on vacation, a boy’s contemplation of suicide, or a girl’s deadly error of running off with an intruder. Most notable among these characters is the old woman whose final moments are chronicled in “Mrs. Porter and the Rock.” The story presents the slow death—of unspecified causes, perhaps a stroke—of someone the reader comes to want very much to live. But the form necessitates her extinction and the details demand it, like the mildly macabre meditation on a dead cockroach, which recalls Proust’s seemingly innocent trains of thought that end up in desperate consideration of suicide. Mrs. Porter, an elderly tourist on vacation with her son, has a novelistic splendor—she’s easily underestimated yet has an edge to her, coming up with sharp little thoughts about life and death as she scrabbles for coins that have fallen into the lounge chair cushions at the hotel. But Malouf’s tale pins her down, then anatomizes and destroys her, and this mingling of features of both short and long forms is Malouf’s peculiar skill. The constant destruction is also subtly interwoven with Australian settings. In many stories, like “Blacksoil Country,” the harshness of rural life leads to grisly murders. In others, like “A Traveler’s Tale,” people hide out in poor country for so long that the landscape washes their identities away. The bigness and emptiness of agrestic Australia just swallows up many of Malouf’s characters, but Australia itself isn’t to blame: Stories set elsewhere, or those about the emotional scars of war, reach similar conclusions. In Malouf’s world, that’s what being a character in a well-wrought short story is about.