A few summers ago, I got hooked on playing dominoes. I’d had a set since I was a girl but I’d never learned how to play. Back then, I thought dominoes were things you lined up in a pattern on the floor, flicking the first one so that each one in the trail fell forward onto the next, creating a most-satisfying clatter.

What was so appealing to me as an adult, was the fact that the key seemed to be matching the tiles, finding sameness, but the scoring came from the unmatched ends, the differences. And that, in the end, the player who is out of dominoes to play, doesn’t score based on their own achievement but on the other players’ misses, the number of dots they have left in their hands unplayed. How unexpected.

Kaie Kellough’s collection of linked stories was also an unexpected pleasure. The way he plays with difference and belonging. How the resolutions are often open-ended and revolve around a subtle paradigm shift. The thematic echoes across the collection. The way that characters reappear and intersect, like members of a literary neighbourhood out for a walk after dinner. The delicate but deliberate capture of elusive ideas like home and freedom.

When the collection opens with “La question ordinaire et extraordinaire”, a story which revolves around the historical figure Marie-Joseph Angélique, readers familiar with her story immediately recognize the oppressor and freedom-fighter dynamic. (Afua Cooper’s work, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canada’s Slavery and the Bruning of Old Montreal, is highly recommended.) It’s an engaging story, bolstered by footnotes but accessible enough that readers without any historical familiarity are invited closer to the fire.

This current electrifies the collection as a whole, with references to revolutionary movements throughout history, from actions by the Front de libération du Quebec to the anniversary of the Morant Bay Uprising in Jamaica, from a character named for the Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos to the Concordia University occupation in 1969 (the subject of a recent documentary, Ninth Floor).

There’s also a saxophone player who listens to Duke Ellington’s “Blues in Orbit”, an academic who’s received a grant which requires travelling to Grenada, and a grandfather who haunts the St-Michel Flea Market on the blue line in Montreal, looking for antique radio tables and landscape paintings.

Throughout, there is a sense that the author is engaged in a conversation with every book he has read, every song he has heard, every memory embodied in every landscape he has walked. He cites other writers and thinkers so readily that one imagines he has tiny inked passages tattooed on his skin (not only is Dionne Brand quoted, but the entire collection could read as a response to her collection of poems A Map to the Door of No Return). And the final in his list of acknowledgements is: “To Hamidou Diop for being the most underdeveloped, yet the most compelling character in Québec fiction.” [Referring to a bit part in Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode (1965; Trans. Sheila Fischman, 2001) that Kaie Kellough has mused upon in previous works too.]

One of the powerful themes that resurfaces in these stories is breath and air becoming life and breathlessness representing oppression. The same saxophone player might be playing his horn on a float in the Caribana parade or on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, inhabiting both the past and the present simultaneously. So, in one story: “Time, like fresh air, grows stale about one story below street level.” And, in another: “I remember her exact inflection, where she cut a word short, paused, and where her voice rose in pitch.” And, yet, another: “A knot tightened in my chest, like a stifled breath, and my body seemed to wrench toward the voices.

This slim collection, barely two hundred pages long, was stuffed with so many sticky notes by the time I finished reading, it’s like it was strung with bunting. Reading Dominoes at the Crossroads brought to mind works by Jordan Abel, Cecily Nicholson, Catherine Leroux, Rawi Hage, and Kristjana Gunnars. It’s one of those books that I borrow, first, from the library, and then resolve to purchase so that it’s poised for rereading.

Contents: La question ordinaire et extraordinaire; Porcelain Nubians; Shooting the General; Dominoes at the Crossroads; Witness; Petit Marronage; We Free Kings; Navette; Capital; Ashes and Juju; Smoke that Thundered; Notes of a Hand

Revolutionary stories have caught the attention of Giller juries in the past: longlistings like Louis Hamelin’s October 1970 (translated by Wayne Grady) in 2013, Robert Hough’s Dr. Brinkley’s Tower in 2012, and Dany Laferrière’s The Return (translated by David Homel) in 2011, as well as Rawi Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Story, shortlisted in 2018. But talk of emancipation is more commonly draped in the folds of history, as with Esi Edugyan’s winning Washington Black in 2018, Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day’s longlisting in 2013, and Austin Clarke’s 2002 winner, The Polished Hoe.

Inner workings
Amidst philosophical musings—on what constitutes a story, what’s the significance of an “I” narrator, and how can we begin to read a story if there is no such thing as a beginning to a story—there’s a quiet determination to illustrate each of these concerns. Similarly, one can read this statement as a reflection of that story’s narrator—”I wanted the agitation of flight. Flight was distinct from discovery or conquest. Its core principle was movement”—but one can also see that mechanism at work in the collection, readers made weightless and volleyed from one story to the next.

Vacillating between function and feeling, a short and simple sentence can be powerful: “I blew all of the air out of my body, until my skin was sucked tight against me.” A few lyrical sentences can be breath-taking: “I understood then that the purpose of my life was to be a fugitive slave hiding in a tree at night, shivering inside of a book that hadn’t yet been written. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what the book would say. I spoke in a very low voice so nobody would hear me. I told my story to the bats and they wrote it in the branches before scattering.”

His description of the St-Michel Flea Market (built in 40s or 50s like so much of St-Michel, with its “asbestos in the walls” is like “one immense, ailing lung”) is succinct, but the sensory details brings it off the page, like the merchants who slipped outside to smoke a cigarette and how the “smoke would blow inside with the winter air when the door opened”. From the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to a rural island home, the settings are vivid and distinct.

This collection’s readers will either be fully, intensely engaged or bored, unmoved. Either constantly vibrating or adrift. “I was adrift. I could wake up somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps at the bottom of the ocean, walking barefoot along the ocean floor playing my saxophone, never having to remove my mouth from the reed to take a breath, just constantly blowing.”

Readers Wanted
You feel like everything you’ve read, since you learned to read, is all one Giant Book.
You inhabit liminal spaces, sometimes looking at them from inside, sometimes looking at yourself in them.
In your experience, flea markets are filled more with stories than shoppers.
The line between history and fiction means everything and it means nothing.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!