Quill and Quire

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by Kathleen Winter

Newfoundland author Kathleen Winter’s debut collection is as motley and intermittently compelling as the characters who inhabit her stories. In these 24 short narratives, Winter presents crowds of people, allows them to wander in and out of the frame, then leaves the reader to sort out the rest. The title story – one of the more traditional of the bunch – is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale replete with gorgeous moments of observation: “Everytime you look at her your heart falls off its little cliff.” Another story, “Burt’s Shawarma,” presents a delicate and acute take on yearning and infidelity, or what happens when a person falls not in love but “away from lovelessness.”

But many of the pieces feel less like stories than story shards. Others have the feel of vignettes or still-lifes, notable for their close attention to quotidian details, but without a lot of forward movement or force. Instead, the movement here feels diffuse, driven by happenstance dialogue and snippets of letters, rhyme, and prayer, rather than by clear-cut motivations.

This is certainly the case in a series of connected stories whose sole purpose seems to be to offer beautiful précises of the various personalities and landscapes that orbit their protagonist, Marianne. Here, we come to understand not only the ritual and comfort of hot-cross buns, but also the excitement in feeling a wind that smells like “wildflowers and clouds and lakes with trout in them.”

What is also striking about this particular series, as well as other pieces in the book, is how aptly their seemingly scattershot approach evokes webs of people connected by provenance, past, and present – relatives, friends, neighbours and extended family routinely and casually overlapping. So if not all of these stories are entirely satisfying when ingested individually, together the effect is charming. Reading them, I often felt I had been tenderly immersed in smalltown Newfoundland’s skewed, sad, raucous subconscious.