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A Bird on Every Tree

by Carol Bruneau

Peninsula Sinking

by David Huebert

ReviewsSeptember_ABirdOnEveryTree_CoverPeninsula Sinking opens with a literary punch to the gut. “Enigma,” the first story in the debut collection from Halifax writer David Huebert (who now lives in London, Ontario) was awarded the CBC Short Story Prize, among other awards. It well deserves its accolades, and establishes Huebert as one of Canada’s most impressive young writers.

“Enigma” is rooted in the immediacy of a young woman’s love for her lame horse, but the story shifts back in time to reveal the origin of this connection (and the woman’s relationship to the natural world) before ending on a heartrending, lyrical note, blurring past and present into an epiphanic moment of empathic connection. It’s a powerful start to the collection, setting the tone and approach for the nine stories to come.

Huebert demonstrates a welcome curiosity when it comes to characters and subject matter. With protagonists as diverse as a young sailor aboard a submarine (“Sitzpinkler”) and an aging prison guard in a “progressive federal institution where women live independently in houses” (“Maxi”), Huebert skilfully depicts characters and engages the reader in fully wrought worlds, each with their own languages and sociologies. The stories are far-reaching, but tightly woven, each focused on characters in significant moments of development or change.

Peninsula Sinking is a strong argument for reading a collection of short stories over time, each story in isolation, rather than through a process of immersion. The elements that are so powerful in the early stories – the shifting from present to significant past; the movement to moments of epiphany; the use of rhetorical questions and unexpected lyrical flourishes in otherwise plainspoken narrative – initially appear singular and surprising, novel without being precious or self-conscious. As these elements repeat, what first seemed distinctive starts to appear habitual; epiphanies become routine, which is the last thing one wants.

At more than 60 pages, the collection’s title story – the last in the volume – is the longest by far, and may signal a shift in Huebert’s work. It might be a matter of length, but the common elements feel less familiar here, less rote, and the story, as a result, has an openness at odds with the preceding pages. It’s an impressive bookend for an impressive collection.

A Bird on Every Tree, the third collection of stories from Carol Bruneau, is even more impressive. While rooted significantly in Halifax, where Bruneau lives and teaches, the stories in A Bird on Every Tree are expansive, both geographically and chronologically. “The Race,” the first story in the collection, puts the reader inside the mind of distance swimmer Marion Lester as she competes in the “world’s longest-ever mixed saltwater race,” driving herself not only against her opponents but her own past.

The past is also the subject of “The Vagabond Lover,” perhaps the collection’s strongest story. Focused on the last days of Dolly Cutler, dying in a bed with a view of the Newfoundland ferry, the story spans decades, teasing out details of a doomed love and the power of literature, before climaxing with an emotionally devastating final scene. To Bruneau’s credit, the story, which could have felt maudlin or sentimental, instead feels simply true.

That sense of fictional truth is key to the success of many stories in the collection. “Burning Times,” which chronicles a middle-aged couple’s whistle stop in Florence, focuses on Keith, for whom a small incident has life-altering overtones, while “If My Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” draws together family dynamics, the music business, and the legacy of the Second World War in contemporary Berlin. Bruneau treats her characters with a compassionate clarity, often understanding them more than they do themselves. “Crotch Rockets,” for example, seems to focus on the reunion of former lovers Roz and Rannie after 26 years, but reveals itself to have been about something – and someone – else entirely.

Bruneau’s writing rarely calls attention to itself, but this is a bravura performance: there is nothing simple about the prose, nothing rudimentary. Rather, a close examination reveals every sentence to be carefully crafted, with an attention not only to sense and sound but character and place. As a result, every story feels unique and spontaneous, genuinely surprising. The style of “Crotch Rockets,” for example, would be calamitous if applied to “If My Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” – and vice versa. This is no mere exercise in voice: this is a reflection of a writer utterly in touch with her stories – not only what they are, but how they are, overlooking nothing in her craft. Bruneau is a master. We should know this by now, but A Bird on Every Tree is a powerful reminder.