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Real Life

by Sharon Butala

We’ve grown used to thinking of evil – if we think of it at all – as something monstrous, destruction you can’t wrap your mind around. Evil is the Holocaust, Sept. 11, war in Rwanda. For others, the word “evil” smacks of medieval sermons or a villain twirling his moustache. We don’t pay much attention to the small evils, the casual cruelties in our lives.

But in her new collection of 10 short stories, Sharon Butala is acutely aware of the presence of evil: “Some people built the simplest, homeliest dikes against it, holding it out, but most people were careless and its vileness touched them here, and there, every now and then.” These now-and-then moments are at the centre of the stories in Real Life.

In “Thief of Souls,” a hellfire preacher announces the world will end on Saturday at 2 a.m. and panics a classroom of eight-year-olds. A farm woman listens to a radio report about an aboriginal man left outside to freeze, watches the shunning of a local mother at the skating rink, and endures the malice of her in-laws in “Winterkill.” In the hauntingly good “Gravity,” we see the stunningly cool deliberateness of a man who knocks his wife around and terrorizes her every breath.

Strung together like that, the storylines seem a little like an episode of ER during sweeps week: orphan with leukemia, baby with drug overdose, blind old man with scruffy faithful dog. But there isn’t a trace of sticky sentimentality in Butala’s writing. Instead, she takes an unflinching look at what makes us flinch. There is fierce joy in the book too, with sparks of triumph and light (not to mention a delicious swipe at the Toronto publishing community, complete with a book jury scandal and a snotty author, in the story “Saskatchewan”). In the end, Real Life, just like real life, is beautiful and disquieting, all at once.