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Stubborn Bones

by Karen Smythe

Karen Smythe is no stranger to the short story. She’s the author of a study of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, so it’s no surprise that her debut story collection – with its sharp focus on the domestic lives of ordinary women – shows the influence of these literary icons.
Set mainly in Nova Scotia, the nine stories in Stubborn Bones trace a wide range of thematic territory. Smythe’s characters deal with, or attempt to deal with, or firmly ignore a variety of life’s tragedies. These women have jobs, homes, ex-husbands. They have disintegrating relationships and ailing parents. They are looking for answers and finding few, often finding none.
Smythe is strongest when sounding the depths of women’s inner lives, exposing them to be far more complex, strong, and even silly than may seem obvious. In the title story, letters written by the protagonist to her ex-lover reveal a woman in turmoil despite the calm demeanor she exhibits in the wake of the death of her friend’s father. In “Miss Forbes,” trailer-park-dwelling Allie privately composes childish ditties for her boyfriend, showing her unique strength of spirit despite her meagre income and the dark cloud of childhood incest permeating her life.
When Smythe strives to fill her work with “deeper meaning,” however, the stories come off as contrived and overly sentimental. The ending to “Feliz Navidad” – an otherwise engaging exploration of a woman’s second marriage – turns Harlequin-esque when the woman almost loses her wedding ring before catching it “between her palms” at the last moment. Symthe would be better to err on the side of ambiguity than to holler from the side of blatancy.
The stories in Stubborn Bones attempt to strip away the outer layers of life to reveal the truth beneath – to strip life to the bone. While the attempt is not entirely successful, the book remains a promising first collection.