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Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility

by Théodora Armstrong

Théodora Armstrong’s debut collection launches House of Anansi Press’s new short-fiction imprint, Astoria, in impressive fashion. This is a writer to watch, and a book not to be missed.

In the trio “Rabbit,” “Whale Stories,” and “The Spider in the Jar,” Armstrong immerses herself in the morbidly curious minds of children. The murder of a local teenager, the gruesome death of a wild dog, and a cave full of spiders are made more chilling when viewed through the acute, half-civilized eyes of the very young. At times, it almost feels like reading the pilfered journals of elementary school children.

In “Fishtail,” a man takes his two teenage daughters on a weekend trip to a cabin on B.C.’s Quadra Island, while behind the scenes his marriage dissolves. The story’s theme of a father’s overwhelming responsibilities, and his ultimate inability to live up to them, is so delicately woven into the narrative that one seems to absorb this story instead of reading it.

“The Art of Eating” is a grotesque, acerbic, hilarious story about an haute cuisine chef named Charlie, whose girlfriend is about to give birth to their child, whom he refers to as “the barnacle.” Charlie is a delightfully entertaining jackass (think Gordon Ramsay meets Michel Houellebecq) who drinks heavily while working, treats his kitchen staff like dirt, and makes crude observations about a server named Rose: “She reminds him of a cigarette – skinny, dirty, stinky, but still appealing in a way he could never explain.”

Rounding out the collection are “Thanks to Carin,” a beautifully nostalgic story about two sisters reconnecting; the coming-of-age tale “Mosquito Creek”; and the devastating title story, about an air-traffic technician who experiences his first human casualty. These darkly intimate and subtly heartbreaking pieces are pure pleasure to read. Armstrong is an electrifying new voice on the short fiction scene.