If there’s one thread that ties together Here the Dark, David Bergen’s second collection of short fiction, it’s faith: the ways it unites and isolates us, how it complicates and makes sense of our lives.
The first two-thirds of Here the Dark contain often stereotypical Canadian short-story fare: a young man travels to a remote northern community hoping to teach the local (mostly Indigenous) population about Jesus but instead learns something about himself; an Alberta cowboy about to lose his ranch to foreclosure begins dating a disabled woman and learns something about himself; a cuckolded math teacher quits drinking and sleeps with a coworker and learns something about himself. Not every story fits this mould, of course, and even those that do are finely crafted. But, like siblings, the shorter stories in this collection share enough traits in common that you might well say to yourself, “Yes, I see how they’re related.”
The last third – and by far the strongest part – of Here the Dark comprises the novella that gives the collection its title. The story centres on Lily, a young woman growing up in a Mennonite community in rural Manitoba. Even before she has much language or context to critique her family’s faith, Lily begins questioning it. Her desires are dual: to be a good housewife like her mother, but also to be something else, even if she can’t quite articulate what that might be. Her cousin in town lends Lily books and lets her try on her jeans and makeup, but even these things can’t convince her that she might have a life outside of her community. The stories in the books are, after all, just stories; the romances bear no relation to Lily’s life as a 19-year-old egg farmer’s wife.
Bergen’s prose is always tight and clear, but in his novella it takes on an eerie quality; the story is both immediate and dreamlike. Lily herself sometimes comes across like a sleepwalker, the kind that frightens you because you’ve heard that it’s dangerous to wake them up but you’re just as sure that every step is taking them nearer to a different kind of peril. In spite of this, Lily never feels less than real. In the hands of a less skilled author, her character – uneducated, religious, sexually frustrated – might fall into trope territory, but Bergen never lets that happen.
If Here the Dark mostly skews along traditional lines, Katherine Fawcett’s new collection of short stories, The Swan Suit, is reminiscent of some of Margaret Atwood’s more experimental short fiction. Fawcett reimagines fairy tales like the Three Little Pigs and Rumpelstiltskin, explores mother-daughter relationships between witches, and injects absurd magic into banal situations, all with a cheeky feminist lens. Fawcett’s narratives move along at a rollicking clip and her dialogue is so lifelike that readers will find themselves ploughing through multiple stories in one sitting, although there are points in some of the later stories that begin to drag a bit. But for the most part, the author has a gift for finding the sweet spot between a beach-read pace, evocative prose, and biting cultural commentary.
Fawcett is by turns humorous, macabre, and downright chilling (and sometimes manages all three at once). In “The Devil and Miss Nora,” Satan tries to negotiate his way through a modern community centre daycare in order to steal a toddler’s soul, only to be stymied by a preschool teacher who runs an essential-oil multi-level-marketing scheme on the side. “East O” imagines the lives of an ovary full of eggs, from pre-puberty to (nearly) post-menopause. The Swan Suit is at its best when it combines razorsharp wit with pressing social issues. In “Crumble,” the protagonist uses her background as a scientist to log and attempt to predict her abusive partner’s outbursts. Fawcett’s finely tuned sense of the bizarre makes for a fascinating approach to the world presented to women in 2020 – one that offers lip service to empowerment and equality but is still awash in misogyny.
We often speak of the Canadian literary landscape as if it’s a monolith – the institution of CanLit and all that – but Here the Dark and The Swan Suit show how much that terrain can vary. They also offer a solid defence of the short-fiction format in a market that seems to increasingly favour lengthier novels. Bergen’s “Here the Dark” in particular will make some readers wonder why novellas ever fell out of fashion. But no matter what their differences might be, both Bergen and Fawcett wield language with a clean precision in books that are a pleasure to read.