CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 2 . . . . September 20, 2002
Madeleine Thien's "Dispatch" starts with an episode of pure fantasy. A writer is writing about a writer who has discovered a letter that her husband has written. But, like the Confederation Bridge, the story is not straight ahead and it curves right and left, turning unexpectedly. Like life, the stories in this collection are all, in one way or another, unpredictable.
Write Turns: New Directions in Canadian Fiction is a compilation of 15 short stories by young Canadian writers, all of whom have graduated with Masters in Fine Arts degrees from the University of British Columbia's highly-regarded creative writing program. All the contributors have been previously published, and many have already won awards for their work. Some, like Allison Acheson, have published work for children and young adults, while others, such as Zsuzsi Gartner, are journalists. It is a contemporary collection, as well, very much of the twenty-first century; only the final selection, "Seven Years with Wallace," is set in colonial Singapore of the 19th century.
With fifteen different authors, diversity is expected. Yet, as the collection unfolds, some common threads emerge. Most of the characters are loners, either by choice or circumstance. "RIP, Roger Miller" tells the story of a man lost in his own past, living in a camper parked on his friend's farm, and quickly wearing out the patience of his friend's wife. The female protagonist of "Blue Line Bus" is a cranky young woman who has given up her young son in order to spend her life following the rock group, "The Grateful Dead," while in "Letters to the Future," a strange wanderer befriends (and beds) librarians in small towns in order to get information about time capsules buried in the corner stones of public buildings. Nellie, the builder of a birdhouse in "Something Blue," the shortest story of the collection, seeks connection and finds it as her neighbour offers advice on the care and feeding of a bird, and in "You Would Know What to Do," the recently-widowed George, reeling from the double knockout punch of his wife's death and the disclosure of his gay son's impending death from AIDS, decides to rob a bank, just to have an interesting story to leave behind him.
Unusual perspectives and truly strange life situations abound in these stories. For example, "Hagiography" tells the parallel stories of Sophie, a highly religious Catholic girl working as a ticket-taker in a porno theatre, and of James, a young seminarian. In "Love Line," we watch as the young narrator tries to understand the strange nature of family obligation and responsibility as her uncle, the con artist, breezes into town (and their lives) with Laura, a Las Vegas show-girl in tow, and then proceeds to live off their hospitality, taking complete advantage of them, vanishing just as quickly as they appeared. "Black" also looks at family relationships through vignettes of a series of funerals attended by a father and daughter, while "Pet the Spider" offers a frightening look at the indignities of old age, as viewed by two young women caring for an elderly aunt. "Dogs in Winter" details the repeated suicide attempts of the daughter of a serial killer for whom this desperate remedy seems the only way to escape her family's past, despite the care of her adoptive parents.
The course of love relationships never run smoothly in this short story collection. The heroine of "Associated Press" can't decide between two equally difficult men, and "Boys Growing" tells the story of a high school teacher who is the addictively attracted to the high school boys in her classes. Betrayal is frequent; the narrator of "Too Busy Swimming" must testify against a fellow teaching colleague over a breach of professional trust, and in "Dispatch," a woman who finds a letter written by her husband to a former love (one wise enough to reject his offer to re-kindle the past) fabricates an elaborate fantasy of the woman's death. In the final story of the collection, "Seven Years with Wallace," the British naturalist of the story's title abandons Ali, the native guide who has faithfully served him for years.
Write Turns is a sophisticated collection of short stories, the writing often understatedly ironic, the humour often dark. Each of the stories stands alone, thematically and stylistically different from the others of the collection. I admired the mastery of craft demonstrated by the writers represented in the collection and came to expect the unexpected. In some respects, it seemed to be a collection by writers for writers, and, for this reason, I think that it might not have wide appeal to most high school readers of fiction, even fans of the short story. Nevertheless, Write Turns really does offer a sense of the directions in which Canadian fiction might be headed, and as a collection of strong contemporary writing, I think that it certainly has a place in the library of a school where creative writing courses are offered.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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