The term “desire lines” refers to the paths of bare earth and worn grass to which pedestrians gravitate, even if a sidewalk or other designated route exists. They result in diagonal slashes across the corners of urban parks and are the unconventional, unsanctioned routes we carve through the world; as such, they form an apt metaphor for the stories in this collection.
Montreal-based Mary Soderstrom’s characters put themselves in peril by straying from expected or safe avenues. In “Ancient Faults,” danger, both natural and man-made, is narrowly escaped, or at least deferred. In “Wrong Address,” a young musician considers two life paths, one fairly conventional, the other exotic. There are stories of travel, both physical and emotional, and stories that examine the consequences of going to extremes.
“Madame Pele Is Not Amused,” one of the longer stories in the collection, follows an ongoing friendship between two women over a significant stretch of their very different lives. We meet Gail, a wife and mother who translates part-time at home. Gail lives vicariously through Libby, who is naturally attracted to danger and chaos, symbolized by her fascination with volcanoes.
This is Soderstrom’s 12th book. In many of the author’s previous works, both fiction and non-fiction, ideas of place figure strongly. Desire Lines skilfully integrates Soderstrom’s powerful feel for geography and location into a fictional context. These themes are not imposed on the stories, but arise organically and provide the perfect metaphor for the characters’ actions. Cities, beaches, and deserts are far more than simply background: in Soderstrom’s hands they act as either foils or influencers of behaviour.
It’s a shame that the short-story form has become the poor sister of the novel; there’s an intensity to it that long-form fiction can’t match. It’s particularly distressing when there are writers like Soderstrom (a Q&Q correspondent), who have so artfully mastered the brief tale. This collection is not to be missed.