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South of Elfrida

by Holley Rubinsky

Holley Rubinsky’s fourth book is a collection of 18 short stories that addresses the theme of liminality: her characters, mostly female, transgress borders of countries and relationships, and stand, tentatively, on the threshold of new life stages. In “Miami,” Sheryl is past 40, recently and unhappily divorced, and travelling alone to Florida. Lonely and looking for love and purpose, like many of Rubinsky’s characters, Sheryl’s self-doubt leads her to contemplate spending the night with a dangerous stranger.

Animal references are a notable element in South of Elfrida. In “Coyote Moon,” B.C. resident Lee is wintering in Tucson after the death of her husband from undiagnosed kidney cancer. She feels terrible guilt at not having sensed that Gregory was ill, and not having been able to save him. Like the coyote – traditionally associated with adaptability, wisdom, and transformation – Lee must learn from her loss. “Stronghold” is the story of Suzanne, a hardened businesswoman, “driven, successful, and lonely as hell.” Seeking change, Suzanne buys a puppy for company, dyes her hair purple, and drives an RV to the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona to attend her friend’s spiritual retreat. When the puppy is accidentally killed, Suzanne’s intense grief compels her to acknowledge her vulnerable side.

There are moments of great clarity, mysticism, and beauty in this competent collection, but also moments of disconcerting darkness. Rubinsky’s women are broken, unmoored, even mentally unstable: Roz in “Galaxy Updraft” talks to her shoes, and “Borderline” depicts an especially disturbing character whose narcissism and anger bristle on the page.

South of Elfrida portrays distinct characters, but somewhat disappointingly, the collection reads as one story repeated over again – the story of a woman in search of meaning, connection, and her place in the world.