Take a clue from the opening sentence.
It seems very straightforward, ordinary.
But the part with the parkette being like a teardrop turned sideways?
Heather Birrell will take what you know and slant it.
(And, also, there is some sadness.)
“BriannaSusannaAlana” is named for the three sisters who tell the story.
Brianna is the youngest, six years old; Susanna is ten and in the middle, which you will have guessed from her placement; and, Alana is nearly 13.
In the title, they are a blur.
When their mother calls them indoors, they are a blur.
But in Heather Birrell’s story, each girl has a distinct voice and a unique perspective on the events therein.
The story begins with all three girls in the parkette.
The description of the neighbourhood perfectly reflects the narrators’ ages.
Remember when you knew every inch of the world? You could itemize the specific contents of a parkette down to the number of swings? You could detail every inch of turf between the important landmarks in your corner of the world?
Clearly the girls know their neighbourhood in that way.
Here is a snippet from later in the story: “It was strange how well she knew her way around here, how everything came to her automatically, like her heart knowing how to pump, and when.”
But there is something new: yellow police tape around the lawn of the brownstone apartment building.
It has been there “for eight days and now appeared slack in places, fatigued”.
During this time, the girls have been testing ideas about what happened there, about the murder.
The narrative splits into threes, in which the girls’ experiences – of that day it happened and the day(s) that follow – spiral, touching down on remembrances and imaginings.
(And, then, there is a final segment for Alana.)
The reader does want to know about the murder which, as Susanna explains, means more than Who, How, What and Where (which are answered on the third page), because one wants to understand the motivation.
The entire event has forced the girls to spiral outward from the known, to consider the mysterious: not only what makes hearts pump, but what makes people stop them from pumping.
But what the reader really wants to know and understand is how this event has impacted each of the girls.
The author carefully details scenes which reveal that each girl is coping with the trauma in her own way (and, sometimes, the trauma is not what the reader will predict from the story’s opening pages, but something else entirely, because coming-of-age is traumatic enough).
One has the sense that Heather Birrell clearly recalls how different it was to be six, to be ten, to be nearly 13; each girl’s personality and experience of life has its own flavour and resonance.
And, yet, there are similarities, small connections between the scenes, which bring them off the page and into the reader’s experience.
One girl is spinning on a swing, the next girl is spinning a story to re-write an experience that she wasn’t prepared to have.
An ant heaves a pine needle atop its small body, an older sister hoists a younger one up high, offering a perch she could not have reached on her own.
The sensory detail is subtle but powerful, and it reveals another dimension to the story for the reader, but even more importantly it adds another layer to the reader’s understanding of the narrators. The observations that each girl makes are significant, as are the ways in which her observations align or contrast with her sisters’ experiences, too.
The idea of perspective is central to this story, the changing view of the world based on whether, for instance, someone is sitting at the top of the slide in the parkette, or perched inside the rocket-shaped climbing frame, or whether one is on her knees or hiding behind a tree.
But the dialogue and use of language is precise and impressive too. Tampons are like switchblades in a girl’s back pocket. Tomorrows might prickle up the back of a neck. Someone might look, for a green moment, like he’s said the wrong thing.
Sometimes a single phrase seems to demand that not only that sentence be re-read, but it seems to cast the entire story into a fresh light.
Readers often complain that there is not enough to a short story; readers of Heather Birrell’s “”BriannaSusannaAlana” looking to complain would have to say, instead, that there is too much.
Too much for a single reading to suffice: a pleasure, indeed.
[This is only the first story in the collection Mad Hope from Coach House Books: it’s a keeper.]