Only ten this year, so far. Without my Alice Munro project to steer me, I am not reading as many short story collections now.
Over the summer, I read Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit (2015) as part of All Lit Up’s summer bookclub. Dimaline is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community and her collection was inspired by Charles Bukowski. Each of the stories considers the theme of addiction, sometimes overtly – in conventional ways – and other times subtly (the first story is more about compulsion and passion and it’s still fresh in my mind weeks later). She places characters who more commonly occupy the periphery at the heart of her stories. The voices are distinct and there is enough plot to hold a reader’s attention even though they are more often preoccupied with characterization.
This is true, too, of the stories I sampled in Kathy Lee Powell’s 2016 collection, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, after it was nominated for three of the major Canadian literary prizes this season; here, too, the characters reside in the margins. There is more attention paid to language and effect in Powell’s stories; it’s easy to see why they caught juries’ attention. Whether a “bandy-legged, moustachioed ex-Soviet” chambermaid or a “former member of the First Baptist Church choir, winner of the Calvary Educational Centre inter-school spell-a-thon” or a superhero-type with a “shocking-pink outfit and blond wig and with the same green evening bag”: readers can’t help but take notice.
“Boyd was sweaty and restless, his free arm swaying at the elbow, the hand gesticulating like a sock puppet while he dozed. After they landed he rushed out into the arrivals lounge, sank to his knees, and vomited a pool of brown sludge. Wordless, she looked down at his balding head. The gash on his crown was now a deep burgundy. She watched the slick pool widen on the floor, unable to call out for the attendants. Her face was reflected in the pool, along with a radiant stripe of overhead light.”
Nonetheless, despite the polished prose, I sank more deeply into Dimaline’s stories, overwhelmed by the sense that she had crawled inside their skins, wasn’t simply observing them from some safe distance.
Readers have ample opportunity to crawl into the skin of Mona Awad’s Elizabeth/Liz/Lizzie/Beth in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. And that’s a fitting description, as the book is preoccupied with skins and identities, with bodies and minds. Like Nadia Bozak’s Thirteen Shells, this is a collection of linked stories, all focused on a single heroine. Both collections are excellent at rooting readers in shifting times and places as both Elizabeth and Shell are grappling with questions of identity in an ever-shifting milieu.
There is a sharp edge to the surroundings (places and people) in Mona Awad’s collection, largely because Elizabeth (regardless of her shape and size) is more of a cipher or a shadow; the scenic development is fantastic, but it never distracts from the fact that Elizabeth is always altering and often missing.
Her preoccupation with the gap between her inward and outward selves makes for uncomfortable reading, and because she is never comfortable with her own self (even when she loses the bulk of the weight she carries for much of the book), the collection bears the burden of discontent. This is exactly how Elizabeth’s story must be told but it is not necessarily the story readers want to hear.
In her 2015 collection The Pain Tree, Olive Senior is also preoccupied with the lives of girls and women, specifically Jamaican girls and women. Many of the characters are grappling with the past, “dark stains” and all. (Here is another author who appeared at this year’s IFOA: always a pleasure.)
“Now I felt shame, not just for the way I had treated Larissa, but for a whole way of life I had inherited. It was we who made history, a series of events unfolding with each generation. And yet, I realized now, it was in this room, Larissa’s, that I had first learnt that history is not dates or abstraction but a space where memory becomes layered and textured. What is real is what you carry around inside of you.”
The women and girls in these stories are searching for a sense of belonging. Their voices are authentic – a variety of rhythms and cadences appear on the page – and Olive Senior pulls readers into quiet moments of transformation with considerable emotional intensity.
Like Alice Munro’s stories, some are remarkably complex structurally; the longest story in the collection has 19 parts, only four of which are presented sequentially for the reader’s ease and comfort. Like Mavis Gallant’s short stories, these combine the engaged eye of a resident with the distanced eye of an observer, as Olive Senior shares her time between Canada and Jamaica.
Because I read The Pain Tree twice (yes, twice!), I wasn’t tracking the duedate of the Kathy Page collection I’d borrowed from the library before she landed on the Giller longlist. (Both Mona Awad’s and Kerry Lee Powell’s collections made it to the Giller shortlist.) Paradise and Elsewhere was a great read, so varied and engaging: I was looking forward to more of her short fiction.
But perhaps it’s just as well that I only dabbled in Kathy Page’s The Two of Us, because it’s preoccupied with pairs of people and it was clear from the table of contents in Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall (2016) that readers must prepare to meet a variety of pairs in this collection too.
This work, translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler, is undoubtedly going to be on my list of favourites for this reading year. An intricate and exacting work, both between and within the stories, The Party Wall is the kind of book that makes me overwhelmingly grateful for translations and for independent publishers whoe are devoted to quality crafting, whether or not it’s readily marketable or Gone-Girl-popular.
What unites us, what separates us. How walls can be divisive and protective. How parents can be divisive and protective. How protection can be erosive and corrosive. How bees and fathers can vanish. Body parts too. There is so much to think about in Catherine Leroux’s novel. So much to play with. So much to simply “be” with.
This year, I’ve reread nine books. Almost as many rereads as short story collections. And The Party Wall is going to be my tenth reread. Other than Alice Munro, I’m not sure I’ve reread any short story collections. Then, to have two story collections worth rereading in such short succession? It’s been a good quarter for short stories.
Next up: Richard VanCamp’s Angel Wing Splash Pattern and Clea Young’s Teardown. And I”m going to settle on a new story project. (Any suggestions?)
What short works have been in your stack of late? Do you have a regular favourite source of them beyond collections?
If you haven’t read any of these, which of these do you think you would enjoy the most?