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Double Dutch

by Laura Trunkey

Double Dutch is a confident debut collection containing nine stories that mostly offer varying perspectives on a single theme. That theme – the body/soul duality – is an old one, though the way Trunkey
employs it is unfamiliar, at least by the standards of contemporary fiction.

9781770898776In the first story, a young single mother thinks her two-year-old son has been inhabited by the reincarnated soul of a terrorist. The reader may think her simply mad, but the toddler does recite Arabic poetry in his sleep. Next up is another case study in possession, in which a man’s wife swaps souls with a bear. This is followed by the title story, about a body-double for former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Once again, the conflict between physical appearance and inner identity is brought to the fore; the material or physical, we are led to understand, is not necessarily the same as what’s real.

The later stories offer more elegiac turns on the same theme. A gypsy boy adopted by a Lutheran church is promoted as the second coming, a role that involves its own mix of human and divine identities. As with certain other stories, this one ends with an evocation of death not as something final, but as a transfiguration, a shuffling off of the mortal coil and withdrawal to an ethereal spirit world. “On Crowsnest Mountain” takes us on a search for a missing boy, in the process dissolving the “molecular chorus” of the boy’s body (a mere empty vessel) into a “chorus of the infinite.” The last story is about a hospice run by a bunch of sisters who can navigate the borderland between life and death. As their physical husks lie in the family home their ethereal selves get drawn to a vague land known as “the White,” which lies beyond a fence at the edge of their property.

One of the more effective and interesting ways Trunkey develops her central theme is by firmly embedding the spiritual within a tangible reality. It’s no coincidence, for example, that border states are so often associated with natural settings like parks. It’s also significant that several of the stories deal with mothers and their children, as motherhood entails both a physical and a spiritual bond. The mother in “On Crowsnest Mountain” feels connected to her lost son in a way that her realistic (arch emphasis in the original) husband can’t because he “does not feel the heart of his child beating in his gut.”

That so many of the stories address the same subject is by no means a criticism: it’s a large theme, and Trunkey is inventive in breathing new life into it. Indeed, it’s the two outliers – about Thomas Edison’s electrocution of an elephant and the killing of a pair of priests in the far North – that are less successful, perhaps for seeming out of place. Despite this, the overall effect of the collection is to make us feel that reality contains within it a spiritual dimension – a message near to the heart of every storyteller as well as a good part of their art.