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by Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes’s first book, a poetry collection, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. His follow-up, Aquarium, a collection of stories, falls short of superlatives, though it ought to earn the writer a label above that of “promising debut.”

There is at least one first-rate story in this collection. On the surface, “The Stand-In,” is about an unemployed, shiftless young man who visits a northern Indian community and ends up spending the winter. But like all good stories, “The Stand-In” opens up multiple layers of meaning, ambiguities about social relationships, and demonstates Barnes’s supple use of language. Metaphorically, the story is a quest myth. The protagonist goes forth, has an experience, and comes back changed. The story also works as a slice of social reality, taking readers into a remote part of the country and exploring the dynamics between the land and the seasons, natives and whites.

“The Stand-In” is a strong addition to the canonical line of narrative short fiction in Canada. In the remaining stories in the collection, readers will find none of the verbal dynamics of challenging new writers like Mark Anthony Jarman or Hal Niedzviecki, nor the intellectual explosiveness of Lynn Crosbie or Michael Turner. Barnes’s Aquarium is the type of book those encouraging greater experimentation in Canadian letters love to hate. Those who prefer small stories suffused with quiet moments will welcome this new voice.