Toronto poet, playwright, and fiction writer Priscila Uppal has the kind of wild imagination that constantly makes me think she might lose control in her stories, but she doesn’t. Instead, these 13 pieces – previously published in a variety of journals and anthologies – tread a marvellous line between the strange and the familiar. As a collection, Cover Before Striking effectively demonstrates Uppal’s remarkable talents.
The title story is the collection’s most experimental. Uppal uses single paragraphs, some as short as one line, to explore images and emotions about various kinds of heat. In this long story, the narrator, a pyromaniac, dissects her family in chunks of prose that burn on the page: “Every match a possibility. Every attraction a destruction.” The linking of opposites is a common technique in these stories, and Uppal consistently nails the tension in these linkages.
The stories generally have to do with family relationships. In “The Man Who Loved Cats,” for example, an elderly father whose house is full of cats summons his three daughters (in an echo of Lear) to ask them how much they love him. In “Blind Spot,” a woman spies on her unfaithful husband. “At Your Service” is an extended elegy for a sister-in-law.
Often the situations of the characters are pushed to extremes. In “Lilies,” for example, emotional distress, perhaps brought on by menopause, is made manifest when the protagonist is apparently attacked by the flowers she has planted. In “Vertigo,” a world-class diver who is prevented from going to the Olympics as a result of the titular disease becomes the subject of a scientific research project. All the crazy stuff, such as the diver’s weight fluctuating wildly within minutes, works; it’s the effects that matter most, not the incidents themselves.
Several times after finishing a story I’d shake my head and mutter, “Huh.” And then I’d go back and read the story again.