House of Anansi, 2013 Astoria Imprint

House of Anansi, 2013 Astoria Imprint

The clear skies and no wind?

That’s not often true, actually, in Théodora Armstrong’s debut collection.

The characters herein are faced with stormy conditions and life is in flux.

But 100% visibility?

That’s true: her vision is impeccable, her scope expansive but her perspective incisive.

Readers know what to expect from the first sentence of “Rabbits”:

“I wrap myself in our scratchy curtains and watch Mom from our front window.”

Eight-year-old Dawn’s story is told in the first person: it is uncomfortable (‘scratchy’), and she is unobserved but watching from behind the glass, her perspective uncluttered and clear.

Readers recognize a limitation in her view (she has only eight years of life experience to inform her), but Dawn is old enough to recognize both vulnerability and ferocity.

Rabbits can be hunted and, even at eight years old, Dawn has the potential to be a predator, or, at least, to step outside the role of easy prey.

Predators and prey also play overt roles in the last and longest work in the collection, “Mosquito Coast”, which is over 80 pages long.

“He raised his two hands, palms cupped inches from each other as though I were a small bird he was trying to trap.”

(And here, too, the perception of strength and weakness, power wielded and a sense of helplessness are complicated, but that’s all I will say, to avoid spoilers. The photographs on the author’s website illustrate aspects of this story, also without spoilers.)

The other six stories in between are filled with obvious tension as well.

Frequently the characters are openly stressed. One finds the “dull clutch of a headache is tightening the base of his skull”. Another has “the sound of frantic water pouring through [his] weed-wrecked brain”.

They inhabit small spaces, like Dawn behind the curtains: an abandoned shed, or a hole dug into the sand for an entire day, or a dark room with flickering screens and a struggling air conditioner.

They observe from within an inner tube, or a cave with a “perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor”,  or a car packed so tightly on a ferry that the doors cannot be opened, or an isolated cabin on a west-coast island.

Sometimes the story contains overt imagery of being trapped and characters feeling overwhelmed:

“The backyard looked trapped in the aggressive hands of a five-year-old girl: pink napkins spread out on knees, rose petal plates, miniature food, and heart-shaped balloons. It all left me feeling nauseous.”

Sometimes the confinement is palpable and clear, but viewed from without:

“The highway is congested, cars packed to capacity, little faces pressed to back-seat windows, slack-faced boredom and wild eyes. In every car that passes I can see fights brewing like storm clouds sliding into a valley.” (See? Storms again.)

But often the sense of being trapped more subtly pervades the stories, with references to a family caught in a vehicle sinking beneath the surface of the water, lumber chained on a logging truck, congested highway traffic with a string of tail lights, or workers battling a forest fire.

(You might think these details would be overlooked, but even if you’re not noting patterns in word choice and imagery, I bet your shoulders will be hunched a little as you read on in this collection, the tension seeping into your reader’s consciousness all the same.)

The threats are overtly identified in some stories: “all the cold running in”, or “a short-circuit that has eaten a smouldering hole through his grey matter”, or a boy’s “mouth still rabid with foamy toothpaste”.

Sometimes they are unnamed but hovering around the edges of the story:

“People don’t think about what’s hiding in the cracks of the linoleum. They don’t think about the stinking mop that wipes the floors every night and smells like death.”

There is actual damage, however: a “bruise yellowing like an overripe pear”, the “falls where jumpers have died”, and arms “cut up, short, bloody slashes running diagonally from his wrists to his elbows”.

And this damage is occasionally self-inflicted, as is the case for Charlie, in “The Art of Eating”, who also carries a callus from his years of cooking experience:

“But no one considers the mess – the anger, the sweat, the bedlam, the burns and cuts and stings it takes to achieve the perfection of those delicate slices of rose-shaped cucumber balanced on the edge of their plate.”

Even more disturbingly, this damage can even be pursued, sought after, even when the risk is understood, as it is for the water plane bombers who work to put out the forest fires: “It’s not that they wanted the forest to burn, but there was an itch there they couldn’t ignore.”

Théodora Armstrong

Théodora Armstrong

(There is one story that I will wait for a long time to forget, in which damage is deliberately inflicted in a more immediate way, but I will not spoil that with discussion of the details; if you have read the collection, you will instantly catch the reference.)

It is not always about obvious damage, sometime the focus is on the creep of decay, like the story of a decomposing whale carcass designed to keep a curious sibling at bay, or the dead tooth in a counsellor’s mouth, or a rank puddle in a parking lot.

One character’s fatigue is like “old deep-fryer oil pumping through his arteries”, there are dreams of dreams of “his teeth chipping, crumbling, falling out”, and there is a “foul taste he suspects may be his life rotting away from the inside out”.

Sometimes this sense is contained in a handful of words like these, carefully chosen; other times a longer passage allows the sensation to bloom, even in an everyday domestic scene:

“An overflowing shoe rack in his front hall, underwear hanging from his towel racks in the bathroom, a pile of half-read baby books stacked on his bedside table – she is spreading over all of his stuff, over him, like spores on a week-old loaf of bread.”

And then there is the damage caused by absence, like when a transport truck passes there is a “phantom feeling of impact”.

For even when there is “no wind” in these stories, stillness is no consolation: there are “branches of the towering evergreens fossilized”, a man’s hair is a “tornado above his head”, and the light cast by orange floodlights is “thick with winged insects”.

Even emptiness contains motion, sometimes even a menace:

“His fists are clenched under the table and even with concentration he can’t seem to loosen them. He’s suddenly aware of the nothingness they’re strangling in their grip. Open or closed, they’re still empty.”

And there is an excess of emptiness, of loneliness in these stories. Characters struggle to connect, but still stories end with people missing one another, with only voices and memories where they long for a loved one: “She is my childhood. She’s the part of me that has passed and I miss her.”

Scratchy stories of predators and prey.

Tension and traps. Stress and small spaces.

Threats and decay. Injuries and scars.

Inescapable loneliness.

So, why read these stories?

Because the “night is warm and star-speckled”.

Because there “are remedies for a dull heart”.

Because maybe Dawn is too smart for her own good, but she is also a young girl who plays with her dolphin keychain in the snow.

Because the “mountains look like they’re covered in snow, but the breeze smells like grass, green and sweet”.

And because the berries taste like exhaust but “there’s a sweetness in them too”.

“The neighborhood is buzzing in the late-afternoon heat, tinder-dry, vulnerable to any kind of spark. There’s been a water ban all summer and the lawns are brown and thirsty. There are thunderstorms in the forecast.”

Stillness can erupt into chaos in an instant, and there are horrors that we cover up because they are unbearable; the stories in Théodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility simultaneously illuminate and offer shelter from the storms we inhabit.