Billie Livingston’s first collection of short fiction exhibits her trademark snappy wit while delving into the sadder aspects of life: mental illness, family breakdown, and abuse. The 10 stories in this collection are heartbreaking in their depiction of madness and marginalization.
Nine of the stories are told in the first person – a wise choice, because it forces readers to experience first-hand events and emotions they may not be familiar with. In “Before I Would Ever Hurt You,” for example, the narrator’s beloved uncle loses his grasp on reality, becomes increasingly paranoid in his attempts to live off the grid on Vancouver Island, and ends up committing a horrific act of violence against someone he loves.
Livingston excels at portraying complicated relationships. In “Candy from a Stranger’s Mouth,” the narrator, Lila, is a journalist writing a story about the Pickton farm. She meets a German writer named Petra, and they become friends. Petra is involved in a long-term affair, and the story examines the illicit aspects of sex by juxtaposing Petra’s experience with the horrors of the Pickton killings. Lila’s brother, meanwhile, has descended into the hell of alcoholism. He criticizes his sister for having “profited from the grief of others.” Lila, however, thinks otherwise: “But people crave witnesses, I want to tell him. I am sure of it now. We crave the eyes of others to know we are not alone.”
“Clown Lessons” focuses on fraternal twins, James and Clarisse, trying to hold their lives together. Both siblings suffer the loss of their mother, who died giving birth to them, and James, in particular, endures his father’s wrath. But they manage to persevere by relying on one another. A similar situation occurs in “Did You Grow Up with Money?” in which two young sisters are subjected to the unwanted attentions of Money, a friend of their father. The older of the two takes drastic steps to protect her younger sister, and Livingston is clear-eyed about the motivation and morality of the violence in the story.
The title story, the only one told in the third person, works perfectly. A performance artist plans to destroy a rat in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which naturally provokes a huge outcry and demonstration. The term “greedy little eyes” can refer to so much in this collection, but it definitely relates to the human need for connections, recognition, and some form of love.
Livingston gets to the heart of human need, with all its confusion and messiness. And she does so with textured emotion and blistering prose.