I’ve read some remarkable short story collections this year: Théodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth, Saleema Nawaz’s Mother Superior, Richard van Camp’s Godless But Loyal to Heaven, Miranda Hill’s Sleeping Funny, and Paul Headrick’s The Doctrine of Affections.
Three more collections have captured my attention in recent weeks: Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to Be Lucky?, Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s How to Get Along with Women, and Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling.
Each of these writers possesses a distinct style, so despite some overlapping themes (shifting identities and betrayals, loss and memory, epiphanies and disappointments), the collections cast a particular light on the stories and characters therein.
“Stories are meant to lead somewhere. To rising action. Climax. Closure. And they lived Happily Ever After. From its beginning, Kalila’s story, like a woolen toque, unraveling.”
A rotten trick, perhaps, not to pull this bit from Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to Be Lucky? (instead, pulling from her novel Kalila).
But it raises a pertinent question indeed.
One to which there are as many different answers as there are readers for stories.
For each reader has different expectations of what a story should do, of where a story is meant to lead.
(By the way, Kalila’s story, for all that it unravels for its characters, is tightly knit in the hands of Rosemary Nixon.)
In Are You Ready to be Lucky? readers meet Rosalyn in the first story, when she is headed to Stella’s New Year’s party.
Consider the opening sentence of the title story:
“Roslyn high-steps up Bantry Street on an icy Alberta evening buffeted by late-December gusts, holding high her sixty by forty centimetre tray of pineapple-stuffed meatballs, trying not to look like a woman who, at the yearly No Commitment Book Club Christmas gift exchange, received a can of gravy and two books called How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself and The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.”
First, note the specificity. Not only can readers traipse the streets of Calgary with Rosalyn, even buy the same books if they so choose, recall the taste of canned gravy, but they can intuit a great deal about her based on the details shared.
(The author’s characterization is consistently exacting, but Rosalyn views the world through her particular lens, acutely.)
The description of the gifts adds a quiet Barbara-Pym-ish kind of precision to readers’ understanding of this character, even as Roslyn’s high-stepping sets this contemporary story in motion with a sharp, no-nonsense tone.
Part of the energy in this title story is Roslyn’s, but part is simply Rosemary Nixon’s deft use of language. Dialogue is used liberally and credibly, so that even the Rosyln-less stories feel as though the prose itself is high-stepping.
This keeps the momentum of the collection steady, and the flare that individual characters add to the stories they inhabit is notable and polished. (Even better, there are some very funny parts. I mean, laugh-out-loud, startle-the-neighbours funny.)
Roslyn is an outstanding character; in only thirty pages, readers will find themselves crossing their fingers for her, understanding that she is, indeed, ready to be lucky.
And, so, it’s with great satisfaction that readers realize, with the second story, that the stories in this collection are linked, so that readers can follow her “fortunes” for awhile longer (although from a distance).
The linking in Rosemary Nixon’s collection is handled deftly. Time passes naturally, and there is a sense that, at any moment, the focus might shift to another perspective, without severing the pre-existing ties.
“In the time it takes Stella to slap at a family of late-autumn fruit flies (October, Roslyn assured her, the perfect time to visit Spain), Dr. Phil has stamped all over the perpetrator while riding metaphorically high in his shiny leather saddle, the woman with the philandering husband sniffling along like she’s doing an ad for nasal drip.” (“The Sewers of Paris”)
If one imagines all the stories in Are You Ready to Be Lucky? in a single room, it is well and warmly lit, with a amber-glow spotlight gripped in a steady hand to guide readers’ attentions.
Contents of Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to Be Lucky?
Are You Ready to Be Lucky? The Costa Blanca News; Left; The Sewers of Paris; Besides Construction; In Which Jesus Hitchhikes the N332 and the Girl Tries Not to Vanish; In Which Floyd’s Odometer Surpasses the Million Kilometre Mark and Friends and Acquaintances Reduce Their Clutter; Mr. Bloxham’s Happiness; A Lovely Hind, a Graceful Doe; On Tilt
If one imagines all the stories in Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s How to Get Along with Women standing together, they are backlit by a mid-day sun, many of the figures only visible as outlines, the glare keeping you at a distance.
In an interview with Shelagh Rogers on “The Next Chapter”, following the book’s appearance on the Giller Prize longlist, Elisabeth de Mariaffi explains her belief that short fiction is enjoying a renaissance right now. (The podcast is available here.)
She wants to do something nobody else is doing, that’s the person she wants to be.
Whether readers find the stories in How to Get along with Women unique will depend how much short fiction they read. Certainly the themes are familiar.
The author views the overarching theme of the collection as power: power as expressed through relationships — all kinds of relationships; power structures involved are fascinating to her.
Thematically, that observation recalls the short stories in Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind, Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love, Britt Holstrom’s “Leaving Berlin”, Heather Birrell’s “BriannaSusannaAlana”.
(Many of my favourite short story writers consider the theme of power in relationships; this is not unique but, yes, certainly fascinating. Indeed, the other two collections considered in this post also contain a number of stories which would fit here thematically.)
But stylistically, How to Get Along with Women feels closer to the fiction of Daniel Griffin, Matthew Firth or Darryl Joel Berger. Matter-of-fact, unadorned prose. The dialogue meshing with narrative, all-of-a-piece.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is standing solidly outside the stories she tells; it is as though she records and displays the events therein and leaves the reader to colour in the outlines.
“When they met he followed her up the street on his knees, screaming in English, Hello, I Love You. Hands knitted together. The cuffs of his pants ragged. Carla’s fingers against the hem of her skirt, holding it still as she walked ahead of him. The skirt too short now that she had a man crawling after her. Nico paid her way onto the metro, followed her all the way to Joliette. At the end of her street Carla turned to him and said finally Go home, go home. Please. I’m not allowed to go out with foreigners and he slapped his hands to his sides. What are you talking about? I am French and we are in France!”
(“Ajaccio Belonged to the Genoese”)
Contents of Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s How to Get Along with Women
Dancing on the Tether; Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth; Accidental Ponds; Field Work; He Ate His French Fries in a Light-Hearted Way; Ajaccio Belonged to the Genoese; Everything Under Your Feet; Super Carniceria; Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim; The Astonishing Abercrombie!; How To Get Along With Women; You Know How I Feel
Were the stories in Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling to share room, each would aim to hang a differently coloured scarf atop the lamp nearest them, but cast a shadow as notable as the bright swatch of cloth.
These are beautifully crafted stories, and their settings and preoccupations vary substantially, as though written over the course of many years, with great attention paid to each word.
They are, relatively speaking, short (the entire collection is under 200 pages long and the margins are generous and the typeface welcoming).
But each seems to reach more widely than the story’s length suggests. These are the kind of stories that linger afterwards.
Even characterizations are sometimes afforded in short, but surprisingly effective, bursts.
Many of the characters in in mid- or later-life, and their stories appear to be told in such a way that the teller too has lived a great deal, endured and survived, struggled and triumphed.
(The precision of word choice reminds me of conversations that I have with elderly folks, those still sharply aware, who seem to speak as though they know exactly how little life is ahead of them and, so, every single word is considered, measured and displayed, the silences between just as important as the speech.)
“And Anna couldn’t explain the reasons, any more than she could explain why there were times when her life felt full and times when it was a bone scraped clean of meat, her marriage appearing, in stark clarity, as a skeleton.”
(“A Small Haunting”)
The stories feel quintessentially Canadian in a traditional way without feeling old-fashioned; some might use the word ‘classic’ to describe the style.
There is a lyricism to the prose, which lightens the weight of the subject matter. And the phrasing reveals the attention paid at the sentence-level in the crafting.
“The wind was making her remember her grandmother’s farm in the Ottawa Valley. She had been eight or nine, and she had stood in a field on a lichen-covered rock while the wind hit her fiercely, and spoke in her ears, and flapped at her clothing. It felt like it could have happened yesterday, she remembered the wind on her face so vividly, but she had been so different then, still master of her soul, the subject of her universe, leaping from the rock, trying to get picked up by the wind.”
Contents of Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling
Oh, My Darling, The Cage, The War Between the Men and the Women, Crow Ride, Little Bird, A Small Haunting, Clams, The Coffin Story, The Wind, In Delphi
In the stack of stories to come? Katie Boland’s Eat Your Heart Out (2013); C.P. Boyko’s Psychology and Other Stories (2012); Anne DeGrace’s Flying with Amelia (2012); Douglas Glover’s Savage Love (2013); Jerry Levy’s Urban Legend (2013); Samuel Thomas Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle (2012); Nadine McInnis’ Blood Secrets (2012) and an anthology edited by Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada (2013).
Have you read any of these collections?
Or, are they on your TBR list?