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Nights in a Foreign Country

by Jean McNeil

Nights in a Foreign Country is a group of self-consciously literary short stories by a young Cape Breton-born author who lives in London, England, and has spent time in France and Latin America. This has both good and bad implications.

There are 14 open-ended tone sketches here, many of them set in the favourite haunts of expat writers: beaches, beds, and bars. The tales feature various reflective, arty characters who bump up against circumstances that cause emotional ripple effects. A young Western woman in Brazil procures sex partners for her ailing husband; a biographer seeks the truth about a well-known travel writer but finds something else instead. Characters in the remaining stories – working, traveling, looking for love or experience – find themselves puzzled or detached or rueful about the places they go and the lives they encounter.

Whether or not you enjoy these tender chunks depends on your appetite for cold dish: many of the themes and techniques in this book are all-too-familar staples of contemporary short fiction. These are the kind of stories that feature hundreds of sentences beginning with “She wondered” or “She imagined,” and frequent descriptions of characters’ thoughts as they look out windows or gaze at their sleeping lovers. McNeil can write, but she needs to curb her tendency to repeat descriptive nuggets – “the shattered hieroglyphs of stars” appears in two separate stories – and to stop indulging in Hello Kitty-like juvenilia – “She is a leptocephalus, a transparent creature, shaped like a willow leaf; then a glass-elver, then a cylindrical adult.”

Next time, McNeil ought to drop the dreary thrumming of ideas and styles readers have seen too many times before – dreams, textures, dear-diary musings – and sharpen her grasp of story. For this reader, lukewarm literary tropes are de trop.