On Monday night, the winner of the Giller Prize was announced. When I was a younger reader, I believed there was a perfect alchemical wonder which was suitably rewarded as a winner from a shortlist of contenders for a literary prize; when I grew up, I realized that there are as many opinions about stories as there are readers in the world and choosing the winner of a prize comes down to personal taste. (This year, in our shadowing of the Giller Prize jury, we shadowed the 2019 Booker Prize jury’s selection method too: Naomi chose one book and I another, as our personal favourites.)
What I really love about prizelists are the longlists. Sometimes they introduce me to the work of an author I haven’t heard of. Sometimes they nudge a book up the stack, one I was interested in reading, but there are hundreds of others I’m interested in as well, so a prize-listing adds a note of urgency and I’ll read sooner. Sometimes they remind me of an author that I have been meaning to try for ages, but I’ve not been sure where to begin.
With K.D. Miller’s Late Breaking, I wanted to read it straight away, even though I haven’t been reading that many new books this year (I’m still working on some backlist reading projects): it was the perfect excuse to make time for it.
Because I grew up loving Alex Colville’s paintings, and because one of my favourites is the cover image of this collection, I was already predisposed to enjoy this collection (each story being inspired by one of his paintings).
Nonetheless, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Late Breaking. Initially, it was the Giller nominated title which I most wanted to begin; soon, it was the nominee that I never wanted to finish reading. After page 278, all I can do is imagine other stories about the characters I’ve gotten to know over the course of these ten tales, connected by people and places. (The stories in her previous collection, All Saints, are linked as well.)
It’s been weeks now, and still I want to know who’s leaving their apartment to do an errand, who’s meeting whom for lunch, who’s recovering from a medical procedure, who’s coping with insomnia, who’s struggling to finish a draft of a manuscript and who’s won a literary prize.
(K.D. Miller’s collection did not make the shortlist for 2019’s Giller Prize, but it was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction, and although I haven’t read all those nominees and expect there are other fine contenders, I would have been pleased to see Late Breaking receive such an award. The winner was Joan Thomas, and since I loved her last novel, The Opening Sky, I’m looking forward to Five Wives too.)
But as for the content of the stories in Late Breaking, it’s commonplace material: suicide, euthanasia, murder, psychosis and divorce. (!!!)
That’s right. These stories feel quiet and subdued, the language and syntax ordinary, and although there is some complexity in the arrangement of the stories, the most adventurous structural elements are alternating perspectives and some flashbacks and pleated recollections: it seems like there’s nothing special here.
Except for the sense of being punched in the solar plexus by the joys and losses that comprise our everyday lives.
At the heart of the collection are relationships.
- Between characters and their deeper selves. (“She has to look at this woman and see someone she no longer is. Get past the familiar. Paint what is already strange and gone.”)
- Between characters and their children. (“Gradually, as Ranald grew and left her alone for longer periods of time, she managed to gather herself back to herself.”)
- Between characters and their lovers. Or, their lost lovers. (“It sounds like something she might have on hand in a spice rack or medicine chest. Cream of tartar. Oil of cloves. Absence of Eliot.”)
In recent years, I’ve read a couple of these stories in their original publications, but reading them collected in this Biblioasis edition is supremely satisfying. As they spiral inward on one another, lock step for a moment before moving in another direction, drop one ahead of the next like a stone skipping across water: the strength of these stories builds.
The element which takes out the sting of having finished reading this collection is that I know how rewarding it will be to reread these stories, to recognize new connecting loops, push and pull loose threads until the mesh shows a slightly different weave.
This is likely to be among my favourite reads for 2019.
Contents: The Last Trumpet, Late Breaking, Witness, Olly Olly Oxen Free, Octopus Heart, Higgs Boson, Lost Lake, Crooked Little House, Flesh, In the Crow’s Keeping