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Book Reviews

At First I Hope for Rescue

by Holley Rubinsky

The five linked stories of British Columbia author Holley Rubinsky’s fine debut collection, At First I Hope for Rescue, are tautly stretched between polarities of despair and deliverance. Written in the first person by five female and two male narrators, the stories are loosely connected to the fictional town of Ruth, B.C., and peopled with an assortment of damaged characters.

This is rocky emotional country. Incest, bulimia, mental illness, sexual fetishism, self-mutilation: each story pivots around a heavy and dark subject. Taken together, however, they are oddly beautiful, spellbinding evocations of the subtle psychological currents eddying about the most mundane people.

The theme of ordinariness underlies the whole collection. It is what Bet Harker, the disgruntled owner of a shabby resort called the Cedar Hideaway, fulminates about at the beginning of the first story. By its end, after layers have been peeled back on the history of a long-standing friendship, ordinariness assumes the quality of nostalgic recall. “I remember being sad about the ordinariness of life…I didn’t know, then, that there would come a time when I wouldn’t have my closest friend any more…. Ordinary is maybe it, it’s what we should be grateful for.”

When he’s down and out, Bobby Fauler, shiftless husband of Sue Ann and father of a pair of infant twins who are the source of his sexual gratification, comes to a similar conclusion. “What I really wanted…was Sue Ann saying some routine rude thing to me and a gurgling wet-diapered baby or two to bounce on my knee. It’s that kind of image which sticks in your brain as being the ideal domestic life you used to lead, whether you did or not.”

Rubinsky has an uncanny knack for authentically inhabiting her characters, and a sure hand with narrative. There are also lovely flashes of humour to lighten her literary landscape. (“I could envision it as being a mildly cool thing, living in Canada,” observes a California teen. “You don’t get so randomly shot at there.”)

And while there seems no prospect of rescue from despair in Rubinsky’s world, the concluding line of the book – “it was possible to be crazy as loons and happy as larks at the same time” – admits the faint shadowings of hope.