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by Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead (Derek Wuenschirs)

White people’s anxieties, anger, fear, and self-doubt regarding race and racism are placed centre stage in Avalanche, the provocative and illuminating new collection of short fiction by Toronto-based Jessica Westhead, the author of two books of short stories and two novels. Sophisticated both thematically and stylistically, Avalanche is a meaningful contribution to an important cultural conversation. 

Westhead’s new collection is explicit about its focus on racial reckoning; it’s prefaced with a content warning regarding racism and white supremacy. Westhead is white, as are her main characters. Although a varied group, they lead lives where most of their friends look a lot like them, and people of colour usually only enter their worlds as co-workers, people they encounter on the subway, or in the service industry. The characters are frequently in a state of unease for a range of reasons: the COVID-19 pandemic, the strains of parenthood, the complexities of married life. And they exist on a spectrum of awareness when it comes to white privilege and racism. 

The entitled triathlete in “How We Challenge Ourselves” bristles at any suggestion that his sporting event under-represents people of colour: “This place is magical and if anybody disagrees with that I will kick them in the face.” Conversely, Darlene, the fifty-something empty-nester who has “Moments with Mustafa” – the security guard at her local library – is so enthused about understanding cultural differences that she fails to see how her attention is unwanted and objectifying. And in “A Warm and Lighthearted Feeling,” Joy, a parent who sees herself as very welcoming of diversity, develops an obsession with a hijab-wearing fellow transit patron that she takes to a disturbing extreme. 

Westhead’s stream-of-consciousness style creates a very intimate reading experience; the reader is exposed to each narrator’s unfiltered thoughts. This approach also lends itself to comedy through disarming candour and absurd, and at times unsettling, juxtapositions. Lying inside an MRI machine, Darlene distracts herself from fear of a breast-cancer diagnosis by imagining a troubled sea vessel being emptied of fleeing passengers: “They weren’t wearing lifejackets, so most of them probably drowned. Or else sharks came and ate them.” There are honest but uncomfortable admissions. In the title story, Tina considers her daughter: “Does she think Ashley is somehow more precious than the young girls who work in the factories in India, making the cheap clothes she feels embarrassed about buying at Walmart? … There is a part of her that does think Ashley is more precious, and she hates that part of herself.” 

Avalanche offers no easy answers; rather it shines a glaring spotlight on white entitlement and the microaggressions that white people inflict on people of colour. These characters are often well-intentioned but just as frequently clueless about their own privilege. One exception is the epistolary narrator of the final story in the collection, “Cheryl, Are You Okay?” in which a white woman writes to a co-worker of colour seeking answers to all her questions about racism. The moment it finally dawns on her that this is an unreasonable burden to place on her colleague is so artfully rendered as to be quietly devastating.


Reviewer: Shawn Syms

Publisher: Invisible Publishing


Price: $22.95

Page Count: 160 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-778430-26-8

Released: Sep.

Issue Date: August 2023

Categories: Fiction: Short, Reviews