In Claire Battershill’s story “Circus,” which won the 2008 CBC Literary Award for Short Fiction, the author distinguishes between two types of circuses: the bright, friendly ones with clowns and cotton candy, and the older, stranger ones featuring freaks and geeks. Her debut collection appears at first glance to be a spectacle of the latter variety, but Battershill shows us that behind the greasepaint and canvas lie ordinary human experiences.
Each of the nine stories contains something curious: a camping tent that offers spiritual transcendence, or a lovelorn Olympic luger. But Battershill depicts characters – such as Edward, who listens to the Northern Lights and dresses like a ninja, or the aging shepherds Willie and George – who at first appear more exotic than they turn out to be. These stories emphasize the mundane under bizarre veneers: disagreements over parenting techniques, buying gifts for teenaged children, fear of new neighbours.
Some of these pieces offer tableaux of amusing details and human insights with no climax or conclusion. This can prove frustrating for readers expecting a well-stuck dismount; endings tend to drift off, leaving situations unresolved and decisions unmade. The desire for traditional conclusions is most pronounced in relationship-focused stories such as “A Gentle Luxury” or “It Tastes Wonderful.” The reader wants to know what happens, but the narrators’ indecisive natures prevent us from intuiting this. Battershill’s style works best in less narrative-focused stories like “Each Small Thing,” in which a hilariously zealous tour guide leads the reader through the Hendricks Memorial Miniatures Museum.
The stories in this collection reward close readers, for whom the abrupt endings may act as points of departure. The circus should, after all, stick with you.