Montreal writer Teri Vlassopoulos’s debut collection contains stories about characters coming of age, suffering through severed relationships, and searching for their own identities. The author mixes kitchen-sink realism with elementary philosophy to portray the confusion, betrayal, and longing for escape that are part of young adulthood, but underneath it all is a strain of hope and a belief in the magical.
In “A Secret Handshake,” a 12-year-old girl tries to regain the affections of her older brother, who’s drifting away from their tight-knit family, by reviving their secret society and learning the handshakes of Freemasons. In the title story, a girl dreams of losing her teeth – “a symbol of death or sudden monetary windfall” – just before her friend Janey’s little brother dies.
Vlassopoulos’s elegant, simple prose doesn’t try too hard to dazzle readers, but succeeds in capturing the emotions of her characters. Overcome with grief after her brother’s death, Janey hopes her sadness might ultimately morph into something beautiful: “I breathed and closed my eyes and thought about how things petrified, how when mollusks were upset they eventually produced pearls, and how if I just lay here maybe things would harden into something good.”
However, Vlassopoulos has a tendency to draw connections too explicitly. For example, “The Occult” closes with the main character, who has just had an abortion, walking to the subway after visiting an old boyfriend: “Most of all she knows that life just happens and that there isn’t an overarching, sensible pattern to it, but it doesn’t mean that she can’t believe in signs and look to them for guidance.” She then sees a rainbow, which she decides is a good omen.
Occasional heavy-handed moments aside, Bats or Swallows manages to evoke not just the uncertainty and fear of young adulthood, but its magic and inexplicable excitement as well.