Reviewing first fiction is an activity filled with trepidation, particularly if the author is an award-winning writer in another genre. B.C.’s Gillian Wigmore is just that, a prolific and highly regarded Canadian poet whose Soft Geography took the 2008 ReLit Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Prize.
The skill with language that made these accomplishments possible pervades Wigmore’s debut novella, Grayling, named for a dramatically coloured freshwater salmon that spends much of its time in the waters off Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The simple plot sees a man and woman, complete strangers, thrown together by circumstance on a five-day canoe trip along Northwestern B.C.’s Dease River. The descriptions of the river and surrounding landscape are exacting and dominate the early part of the book, until the characters’ daily proximity forces them to develop a rapport of sorts. Once their dialogues begin – studded with hints of lives left behind and dangers evaded – their lofty insights and self-awareness, and the things they choose to share and conceal, are quite wonderful. These conversations fail only when they turn to more tangible topics – particularly a longish passage on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” that feels strangely out of place and grasps awkwardly for spiritual insight.
In a novella featuring two characters, the slightest of plots, and only one setting, there’s not a lot of room for error. While awkward at times, and meandering at others, there’s something about Wigmore’s ability to dole out just enough mystery and revelation – in deft, memorable language – to keep Grayling moving along. At one point, the characters lose the salmon they caught for dinner when the fish fall overboard from the canoe, but the two travellers are able to feast on the leavings of a food-delivery truck that dumped its contents on the shore road in an accident. There’s a lesson here too, about providence – about finding what we need, what will sustain us.