From different parts of the country and at different turns along this mortal coil, two Canadian women offer new short-fiction collections with striking perspectives on society, work, relationships, and the self.
In Walking on Water, 75-year-old Jancis M. Andrews tackles the politics of aging and isolation, and the human costs of urban development, from a distinctly British Columbian perspective. Alexandra Leggat, a Toronto-based creative writing instructor from a younger demographic than Andrews, delivers surreal, anxious prose that operates outside of standard time and place in the stunning collection Animal.
Andrews’ collection is characterized by clean, workmanlike prose and a strong affinity for the challenges of working-class life. The book features nine short stories and an essay called “Country of Evil,” a compelling set of recollections of the London Blitz during the Second World War, which she experienced as a seven-year-old girl.
The themes of her short fiction most often relate to societal change experienced in the form of generational divides and conflicts around gentrification, where newfangled approaches and corporate bottom lines devalue older ways of doing things. The farcical “Moon Calf,” for instance, is a hilarious account of a female investment broker who, while running an errand in a poor neighbourhood, stumbles into a tea party consisting of a trio of old ladies. The upwardly mobile exec is quick to judge the women’s “small, defeated lives,” but as the biddies get increasingly garish, ribald, and politically incorrect with each paragraph, the reader’s affection for them increases in equal measure.
Not every story delights to the same extent. “A Gift for Michael Mooney” depicts the emotional and psychological toll of a dog-eat-dog sales career. The story has an intriguing setting – the B.C. ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay – and interesting supernatural elements, but its characters – a sales manager, his nagging wife, and his tyrannical boss – feel underdeveloped and archetypal. A couple of other stories hinge on unlikely coincidences or simple symbolism, as in two consecutive stories in which a Porsche serves as shorthand for status and self-importance.
The standout in Walking on Water is “Big Girl,” about Betsy, a girl troubled by large breasts at a very early age. The story is set in the stifling 1950s, when sexual education was picketed and masturbation viewed with horror. Betsy’s coming of age is marked by conflict with an aunt whose overt sexuality defies social convention. This moving story closes with startling and genuinely unexpected revelations.
In contrast to Andrews’ more traditional approach, Alexandra Leggat’s Animal is poetic and disarming. The stories are primarily mood-driven rather than straightforward narratives – a series of emotional puzzles in which key pieces of information are often withheld until very late in the telling. The effect is to create an uneasiness about people’s relationships to one another and to the natural world.
All of this is carried off in finely calibrated prose. “Fuselage” opens this way: “I yank quills from a stray dog’s nose.” This line reveals everything about the narrator but nothing about the supremely inventive plot that follows. In “Sweet Tea,” one sister gets more drunk than the other on identical glasses of bourbon-infused tea: “Her eyes are steady, mine splayed.” Leggat uses short sentences masterfully, to noirish, ominous effect. Dreams figure prominently in almost every story, in subtle and unpredictable ways. The final story, “Colt 45,” is a bold and punchy ode to the centrality of football in one woman’s life.
Under Leggat’s spell, all of her characters are likeable, even – perhaps especially – those who seem the most unhinged. It’s the world around them that’s unfriendly. The stories are most often told in the present tense and depict moments imbued with tension. They feature women who are intoxicated or angry or complicated but never stereotypical, and explore antagonisms that range from the subtle to the explosive. Her characters are often in conflict with the changing role of technology in modern life; one narrator describes a four-year-old boy, who knows how to efficiently navigate eBay, as “far from innocent.”
Most remarkable is “Blue Parrot,” a darkly claustrophobic masterpiece. It’s an epic battle between a woman and her sister-in-law, each of whose lives are curiously stunted for reasons that are revealingly similar. The reader’s sympathies lurch many times over the space of 25 pages. In “Blue Parrot,” Leggat is in full control of a kaleidoscope of mood, theme, character, and plot. This story is worth the price of the entire book.