In her debut novel, Newfoundland playwright and author Megan Gail Coles uses a trendy St. John’s restaurant (complete with local celebrity chef) called the Hazel as the connection that binds a cast of depressed, desperate, and wounded people.
Though a love triangle lies at the narrative centre, Coles’s book is far from a trite tale of passion gone awry. Iris, the hostess at the Hazel and one-third of the triangle, is completely undone by her relationship with John, the married, older, womanizing chef. It is not simple forlorn longing she experiences. Rather, Iris is the heightened personification of every bad relationship writ large, complete with depression, rage, and deep, visceral anguish.
Iris is not the only one suffering, however. The other characters – including Olive, a damaged young woman whose tragic past has bled into an equally tragic present; Calvin, a man who recognizes he could be so much better than he is; and Damian, a gay server hell-bent on self-destruction – drip with tragedy and complexity.
Coles, winner of the BMO Winterset Award, ReLit Award, and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for her 2014 short-story collection Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, takes awhile to get into things, introducing the players in her story one by one at the outset with a glimpse into their individual lives and headspaces. Only then does she begin constructing the narrative, linking separate storylines with well-placed coincidences and adjacent relationships to tie the whole thing together. For the most part it works, though the slow-burning nature of the first section might lose a few readers along the way. This would be a shame, as they would miss out on the more action-filled, intense, and rewarding second and third acts.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is direct and forthright in addressing issues of race, class, sexism, homophobia, and the stark realities of what women must sometimes do to survive a world hostile to them. Coles rages at times, veering away from novelistic prose into something more akin to indictment or homily, speaking directly to the reader in a tone that commands attention and recognition. She calls out in equal measure the men who perpetrate abuse against women and the ones who stand by and do nothing to stop it from happening, as well as the women who enable and defend the offenders. Adding to the novel’s emotional weight, there is no retribution for any of the lost souls who populate Coles’s story.
The lure of Coles’s often glorious use of language and the importance of reading books that do exactly what Small Game Hunting does – force the reader to face truths that have been hidden and swept away for far too long, to be made uncomfortable and prompted to think rather than be simply entertained – are reason enough to give this up-and-coming author’s new work serious consideration.