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Confidence

by Melanie Little

In Melanie Little’s debut story collection the “confidence” of the title is a tricky quality, as likely to be associated with a swindle or a secret as it is to be linked to boldness or self-reliance. The children of Confidence learn that their elders usually fall into the first category: “adults always catch the wrong thing, turn the wrong cheek, zoom in on the ones made dumb by innocence.”

Confidence as an imperative to succeed (and perform smilingly) emerges as the theme of two figure-skating-related tales that evoke not only the nausea/joy of childhood competition, but also the complex inner world of true-life champion and figure-skating pioneer Madge Sayers.

Four connected stories, the most powerful of the collection, follow sisters Alice and Angela, and later Angela’s daughter, Phoenix, as they wrestle with a legacy of abandonment and seemingly arbitrary iciness between family members. Angela is a particularly cold and compelling character, and Phoenix’s attempts to form a meaningful connection to her are truly heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are heavy on cleverly rendered postmodern ennui, but Little performs these passages with snappy energy. In “The Hard Sell,” a fast‚ funny monologue on the nature of celebrity is spewed forth by a wannabe screenwriter who hawks candid shots of Hollywood stars on street corners. And in “How to Read and Write,” the cynic Nigel, who views his life as something deconstructed and distant, is duped by his supposedly less savvy literacy student.

Though not all explicitly linked, the stories share a tonal similarity; many of the characters’ actions seem either ironic or unfathomable. This often makes for a dark, unsettling reading experience that is tempered by Little’s poetic lateral leaps between her characters. Lucky for readers, Little’s stories live up to the collection’s title; hers is a confident, original voice whose hard edge is softened by its canny empathy.