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Open

by Lisa Moore

After millennia of clinging by its fingernails to the edge of North America, Newfoundland is everywhere. It’s on the big screens in The Shipping News and Rare Birds, at the Giller Prize with Michael Crummey’s River Thieves, and the Governor General’s Awards with Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Soon somewhere else – Lisbon or Patagonia, perhaps – will overtake it as a centre of literary imagination. Meanwhile, happily, the Rock’s high profile betters the chances of writers of Lisa Moore’s calibre being noticed.

Moore’s short story collection Open seems to come from another place than narratives of Beothuks hunted to extinction or godforsaken communities hunched on the fogbound coast. It hasn’t a single cold-pinched outport fiddler washing down boiled rabbit and seal-flipper pie with screech. There is little need for seal-flipper pie now that shiitake mushrooms and lemongrass can be had in St. John’s.

Far from inhabiting isolated pockets of dialect and behaviour, the characters in Moore’s stories are connected all over the globe: two local girls travelling in India take parts as extras in a Bollywood film; another brings home as a husband a “very, very rich Frenchman,” whose talents include opening champagne bottles with a machete. Moore’s characters are global citizens, as legitimately so as if they lived in Winnipeg or Rome. Weather happens outside the hairstylist’s window or the car windshield en route to a party. There are hints of another Newfoundland in a persistent icy drip from a ceiling, a church with its windows shot out, a hungry dog outside a trailer in the snow. However, when Moore invokes the outdoors, it is usually from a hammock or the deck of a yacht.

This accomplished, polished collection is Moore’s second. At the centre of most of the stories is a couple fully established in adulthood, yet not so far from childhood and adolescence as to have forgotten how it felt. Their partnership is strained by restlessness/another baby/a yen to move to Montreal. In one story a woman has a flamboyantly beautiful friend she wishes she were more like. Moore’s chararacters are realizing that wanting something badly is not necessarily enough to get it, that sometimes you just have to be open to what life brings. Sex matters. So does food.

The writing is powerfully visual, stripped of expository passages and stodgy quotation marks, moving headlong through story frames with a staccato he says/she says. Images intersect and overlap, setting up resonances. “Mouths, Open,” about a troubled holiday in Cuba, brings together waxwork figures of Ché and Castro (shouting revolution), the portraiture of Bernini (lips open as if to speak), and Italian transsexuals in a hotel pool (“inflated dolls ready-made for oral sex”).

Though every story is meticulously constructed, some are more formal in structure. The opener, “Melody,” consists of two balanced halves: the narrator’s friend has an abortion in university and gets on with life; decades later the narrator has a rotten tooth extracted and, in a desperate bid for security, marries the dentist, the courage of her youth having failed her.

Sometimes Moore crowds interconnections in a single instant, like a life rewinding. A memorable example: 18-year-old Lyle picks up the phone to hear the voice of the 17-year-old girl he had unprotected sex with weeks before. Into this pivotal slice Moore brings the screech of oven hinges as his mother takes out a shepherd’s pie, the garburator eating carrots, the Jeopardy theme – and his microscopically detailed memory of first seeing the world through contact lenses, and fainting. Over and over Moore expands the universe, then shrinks it back to a beat of individual consciousness.

You might expect this style to eventually pall, but Moore’s riffs hold us rapt by being so arresting. During a holdup, for example, a jar of pickled eggs falls off a counter, and “fat, limbless,” they “trundle across the floor as if they have places to see.” Those eggs are like babies, washing out of the womb and off into lives of their own. Or Newfoundlanders off to see the world.

In “Natural Parents,” perhaps Open’s richest story, a man and his 11-year-old daughter spend a magic day on Conception Bay. They read through meals, near-oblivious to the sunny world around them, until the visit of a neighbouring boy jolts his father’s attention from his Heidegger. His daughter’s subsequent balletic dive into the long grass is lovely, breathtaking really, capturing a seismic shift between life stages.

Moore’s next life stage? She plans to write a novel set in Newfoundland and France. She has already mastered the short story. What will she do when she really stretches out?